All posts by The Eye

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”
Herman Hesse, Bäume: Betrachtungen und Gedichte

What a challenging time this has been! Circumstances have made many of us reflect on our lives. Perhaps you have questioned how you spend your time and what really matters. What changes will you make? What is the intention of your life?

This month our writers explore the theme of trees.

As you read this, what is the tree that is closest to you? Contemplate it for a few minutes. How long has it been there? Was it planted by someone or did it spring up by the grace of nature? Run your fingertips along its bark. How do its branches reach- extending out like open arms for a hug or like a child on tiptoes trying to touch the sky? What is the shape and color of the leaves? Press one to your check and feel its texture.

Now imagine its roots reaching underground and connecting to the next closest tree. What information or secret are they sharing?

You don’t need to me to tell you how necessary trees are to our survival- we all learn it as children and yet we seem to forget. We are an entire species hell bent on self-destruction. We are literally cutting down the very things that allow us to breathe- somewhat ironically as a virus that affects the respiratory system fills us with fear and has us staying indoors and wearing face masks.

Last week when we had the alarming earthquake that made our homes sway and, dishes and mirrors crash to the floor, I couldn’t help but notice that the trees remained sturdy. From the tallest leaning palm along the boulevard to the giant guanacastles that are peppered through Huatulco, their roots held firm and they stood.

I opened this editorial by commenting on what a challenging time this has been. I should have added… for humans. The world is actually ok. It is humanity that is out of sync with nature. During quarantine I have been thinking about a whale. I imagine him deep in the ocean, large and magnificent. I think of the ships that have stopped crossing above him and I hope he is enjoying the brief respite from our symphony of industry.

Go to the tree closest to you. Touch it. Listen to it. Learn from it.

See you next month,

Jane

The Ahuehuete, Mexico’s National Tree

By Julie Etra

Designated the National Tree of Mexico in 1921, officially confirmed in 1924, the evergreen ahuehuete tree has a complex linguistic background. Taxodium mucronatum, the ahuehuete tree or Montezuma bald cypress, is called ahuehetl in náhuatl, which means “water drum” or “old water” (atl = “water” and hueheutl = “old”). The “old” part refers to the epiphytes that festoon the ahuehuete tree; these are lichens or bromeliads often attached to and hanging from the branches.

The ahuehuete also has numerous common names associated with the indigenous language of the particular area where it is growing; for example, in Oaxaca it is known as tnuyucu or t-nuyucul in Mixteca and yagaguichiciña in Zapotec. It is related to the giant sequoias of northern California as well as the bald cypress found in the southeastern United States. The Spaniards named the tree sabino as it resembled a pine from their mother country.

The ahuehuete grows throughout Mexico, but its complete range runs from southern Texas to Guatemala; it is found in a wide range of climates, from the semi-hot to temperate to cold. It is associated with water – riparian (riverbank) areas, springs, or high groundwater, and is remarkably fast growing. Rate of growth can be up to six feet per year on good soils, but will grow fast even under drought conditions. It has an unusually thick trunk toward the base, even on young trees. In maturity, it has a broad-topped, spreading shape.

Perhaps some readers of The Eye have had the opportunity to visit the Tule Tree (El Árbol del Tule), the enormous specimen of Mexico’s national tree in Santa María del Tule on the outskirts of Oaxaca City (see Alvin Starkman’s article elsewhere in this issue). At 48 meters (over 157 feet) in circumference, its trunk is the largest of any known tree in the world, although the tree is only 43 meters (about 141 feet) in height. It is also one of the oldest trees on the planet, at about 2000 years old according to carbon dating.

But where is the water it’s supposed to need? Like the ancient Lago del México, the location of modern CDMX (and ancient Tenochtitlan), there used to be a lake at Santa María del Tule; it was surrounded by marshes, supporting lush growth of bulrushes and cypresses. Hence the name “Tule,” the common Mexican name for the long-gone bulrush. In recent archaeological excavations at Tlapacoya II, in the state of México, an ahuehuete trunk was located in a layer carbon-dated as being 23,150 +/- 950 years old, indicating ancient riparian forests that no longer exist.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards and the subsequent conquest, the Mexica group of Aztecs cultivated the trees as ornamental and shade plantings in the center of their chinampas (floating agricultural systems) and along pathways throughout the Basin of Mexico, which included six lakes.

Designated the National Tree of Mexico in 1921, officially confirmed in 1924, the evergreen ahuehuete tree has a complex linguistic background. Taxodium mucronatum, the ahuehuete tree or Montezuma bald cypress, is called ahuehetl in náhuatl, which means “water drum” or “old water” (atl = “water” and hueheutl = “old”). The “old” part refers to the epiphytes that festoon the ahuehuete tree; these are lichens or bromeliads often attached to and hanging from the branches.

The ahuehuete also has numerous common names associated with the indigenous language of the particular area where it is growing; for example, in Oaxaca it is known as tnuyucu or t-nuyucul in Mixteca and yagaguichiciña in Zapotec. It is related to the giant sequoias of northern California as well as the bald cypress found in the southeastern United States. The Spaniards named the tree sabino as it resembled a pine from their mother country.

The ahuehuete grows throughout Mexico, but its complete range runs from southern Texas to Guatemala; it is found in a wide range of climates, from the semi-hot to temperate to cold. It is associated with water – riparian (riverbank) areas, springs, or high groundwater, and is remarkably fast growing. Rate of growth can be up to six feet per year on good soils, but will grow fast even under drought conditions. It has an unusually thick trunk toward the base, even on young trees. In maturity, it has a broad-topped, spreading shape.

Perhaps some readers of The Eye have had the opportunity to visit the Tule Tree (El Árbol del Tule), the enormous specimen of Mexico’s national tree in Santa María del Tule on the outskirts of Oaxaca City (see Alvin Starkman’s article elsewhere in this issue). At 48 meters (over 157 feet) in circumference, its trunk is the largest of any known tree in the world, although the tree is only 43 meters (about 141 feet) in height. It is also one of the oldest trees on the planet, at about 2000 years old according to carbon dating.

But where is the water it’s supposed to need? Like the ancient Lago del México, the location of modern CDMX (and ancient Tenochtitlan), there used to be a lake at Santa María del Tule; it was surrounded by marshes, supporting lush growth of bulrushes and cypresses. Hence the name “Tule,” the common Mexican name for the long-gone bulrush. In recent archaeological excavations at Tlapacoya II, in the state of México, an ahuehuete trunk was located in a layer carbon-dated as being 23,150 +/- 950 years old, indicating ancient riparian forests that no longer exist.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards and the subsequent conquest, the Mexica group of Aztecs cultivated the trees as ornamental and shade plantings in the center of their chinampas (floating agricultural systems) and along pathways throughout the Basin of Mexico, which included six lakes.

The trees lined the canals and were planted in the pre-Hispanic parks and gardens, which were abundant – Mexico has had a long and storied love affair with gardens, and particularly trees.

Ahuehuetes were a major feature of the gardens of Moctezuma, and before him Nezahualcoyotl (see the 100-peso bill). And it undoubtedly sheltered Hernan Cortés on the Noche Triste, the Night of Sorrows, where he supposedly wept as his invading army of Spanish conquistadors and their native allies were driven out of the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan (not for long). As the lakes have been drained and paved, many of these trees have succumbed to loss of habitat and altered hydrology.

Pre-Hispanic Mexicans prepared various parts of the tree for medicinal purposes. They burned the bark for an astringent, to heal burns, scars, and skin ulcers. Other medicinal ailments were treated through the preparation of resin, leaves, buds, stems, fruit, and bark included edema, heart conditions, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids. The wood was used for furniture and beam construction, and burned as fuel. Ahuehuete trunks, due to their hardness and resistance to rot, were used to make canoes.

Ahuehuetes also had spiritual and mythic significance, and were considered ancestors, brothers and/or gods associated with creation stories. The Mixteco chiefs of Apoala (northwest of Oaxaca City) believed that the gods and the first chiefs originated from the branches of majestic trees growing adjacent to rivers. The “broken tree” (arbol quebrado) myth of the Mexica, which is portayed in the Codice Boturini, represents the birth of the Mexica people as an independent nation. In general, pre-Hispanic texts reference the religious, magic, and cosmic properties of trees, particularly those species that grow close to rivers and springs.

Another legend about the ahuehuete is related to its use as temporary housing. By divine mandate a husband and wife took shelter in the hollow trunk of an ahuehuete in anticipation of a flood. The gods drained the land and the couple survived. Currently, among the people of the Huasteca (a geographical and cultural region of the Meso-American Huastec people – it runs along the Gulf coast and inland to include parts of five states in central Mexico) – the tree plays a role in the holiday celebration of the initiation of planting, in accordance with the agriculture calendar. Other current religious rites consist of petitioning the gods for rain by wrapping a statue of San Antonio de Padua in braided roots of the ahuehuete, then burying the statue in a well dug near the river. Archaeobotanical studies have revealed that branches of the ahuehuete were used as offerings in a variety of religious ceremonies, particularly in the Basin of Mexico.

Through its continued traditional and religious uses, therapeutic qualities, versatility in construction, and use as a fuel, the ahuehuete maintains is its place in contemporary Mexican culture.

Five Fabulous Flowering Trees in Huatulco

By Brooke Gazer

It was the end of May when we drove into Huatulco for the first time. I recall being struck by the magnificent trees lining the green boulevards, especially those flaunting a riot of color. Who wouldn’t be impressed seeing them in all their glory? It is unfortunate that many visitors to our town miss this beautiful season, when the trees are most striking. Here is a list of my five favorites, accompanied by a bit of trivia on each.

The first three require a lot of space and may be too large for most home gardens, but they can be readily admired while walking along the wide median on Chahue Boulevard. The last two are certainly no less impressive and are more suitable for domestic gardens.

Flamboyant (flamboyán) … When in bloom, you can’t miss them. From April through June, clusters of delicate, bright scarlet flowers bunch together, forming enormous crimson bouquets that cover the entire tree. When this occurs, the tree appears to be on fire, which is where it derives the name. Flamboyant is from the French flambé, meaning “in flames,” as in baked Alaska flambé.

These broad shade trees can go dormant in the dry season, but with year-round watering, they keep some of their delicate fernlike leaves. When the blossoms disappear, they are replaced by flat, leathery pods, up to 60 cm (about 2 feet) long. Dozens of mature pods hang from the branches like skinny bats, giving the flamboyant tree an eerie appearance when denuded of foliage.

There are several varieties of flamboyant trees, but the species found in Mexico is Delonix Regia, which originated in Madagascar. If you have the space for a shade tree, and seek (almost) instant gratification, this one can shoot up by over a meter per year, reaching a height of 10-12 meters (up to 40 feet), with an even greater spread. But take care, invasive roots can interfere with building foundations and sidewalks, something you may have noticed stumbling over uneven pavements around town.

Golden Shower Tree (lluvia de oro) … While not seen as frequently in Huatulco as the flamboyant, these marvelous ornamentals grace many of Huatulco’s streets. From April to September, long sprays of bright yellow flowers droop in clusters from its branches, like rain falling from the clouds. A mature 15-meter (almost 50 feet) tree can spread up to 12 meters (40 feet) across. This deciduous tree loses its long, glossy leaves during the dry season, but with regular irrigation, it retains some foliage. Even as the tree is in full flower, seed pods appear as dark brown cylinders, about 2 cm (about ¾”) in diameter and can be up to 90 cm (almost a yard) long, hanging from its branches.

Cassia Fistula is native to southern India and has spread to southeast Asia; it is both the national tree and the national flower of Thailand. Aside from its beauty, this ornamental also bears the name Aragvadha, meaning “disease killer” in Ayurvedic medicine. Ayurveda, or “science of life” in Sanskrit, is a natural healing practice, originating over 3,000 years ago in India. It is believed that various parts of the Golden Shower Tree provide remedies for practically every infirmity from constipation to cancer.

African Tulip Tree (tulipán) … Not only is this tree green year-round, it produces masses of enormous, red-orange flowers throughout the year. Large clusters of buds appear at the end of the branches, and each bud opens to form a five-petal bloom of 8-15 cm (3-6″). The flowers are trumpet shaped, with ruffled edges; hence the name “tulip tree.”

Native to tropical Africa, Spathodea campanulata is part of the bignonia or trumpet vine family. This tropical evergreen can reach up to 25 meters (over 80 feet), with abundant, dark green foliage. Its leaves have a matte finish and are slightly rough to the touch.

When the showy blossoms fade, long boat shaped capsules stuffed with seeds appear, and as they open, copious quantities of seeds are released. Even if space allows, you might think twice before introducing the “King of Flowering Trees” into your garden. Those seeds form roots rapidly, and are hard to control, which is why this species is listed among the world’s top 100 most invasive. I can only assume it is through the diligence of Huatulco’s ninety some workers who diligently care for our parks and boulevards, that we do not see an overabundance of African tulip trees in Huatulco.

Bougainvillea (bugambilia) … Native to South America, this ornamental may technically be a shrub, but is easily trained as tree. Several roots planted in unison form a single trunk, allowing the thorny branches to make a canopy of colorful blossoms all around it.

The botanist Jeanne Baret was the first woman to circumvent the globe, and it has been speculated that she was the first European to observe this delicate flower. In 1776, women were forbidden to sail, so, on the four-year voyage headed by Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, she disguised herself as her lover’s valet. The lover, Philibert Commerson, took credit for the discovery and named it after Admiral de Bougainville.

With over 300 varieties of bougainvillea worldwide, the range of colors and hues is endless. Bunches of delicate white, yellow. purple, pink, or red “flowers” – the colorful parts are actually bracts – appear all along its thorny branches. The actual flowers are tiny and waxy, white or pale yellow, in the center of the bracts. At times, bougainvillea blooms can be so profuse, they render the small, green leaves practically invisible.

With water, this hearty species stays green and produces blossoms year-round. Depending on the variety, mature bougainvillea can reach between 6-12 meters (20-40 feet) high. Branches might spread an equal distance but require careful pruning to enhance flowering. Under optimal conditions, bougainvillea can achieve about one meter (just over three feet) per year.

Whether as a tree, bush or vine, this ornamental will provide a rewarding burst of color to any garden in Huatulco. Bougainvillea are so common here, it hardly warrants mentioning a location where one might see them.

Plumeria (plumeria, flor de mayo) … Endemic to Mexico, Central and South America, there are 11 sub-species of this tropical flowering tree, each with a multitude of varieties, offering a diverse range of colors or combination of colors, including creamy white, yellow, pale pink and fuchsia. In Mexico, these exotic blossoms were used in rituals by pre-Hispanic Mayans and Aztecs. In Hawaii and parts of Asia, the flowers are strung into “leis,” garlands to adorn women’s hair or wear around the neck.

Also called “frangipani,” the various species of plumeria produce a prolific display of blossoms with a delicate waxy texture and an intoxicating scent. The name frangipani originates with a 16th-century Italian marquis of the family Frangipani. The marquis created a perfume used to scent ladies’ fine leather gloves. The fragrance from this New World flower reminded people of the scented European accessory.

With shiny, dark green, elongated leaves, 20-30 cm long, most varieties reach a height of 4-6 meters (12-20 feet), but some might attain a height of 12 meters (40 feet). Plumeria blooms in the spring, but with sufficient water, a second season is possible after a dormant period. In its leafless dormant stage, this is not an attractive plant. Most trees limbs branch off into progressively finer branches; plumeria boughs simply reach an award stubby conclusion. However, the exotic blossoms that spring extravagantly from these boughs will compensate for what it lacks part of the year.

Plumeria are part of a larger family called Apocynaceae, also known as the dogbane family, because some were used as dog poison. A cut plumeria branch emits a milky substance that can irritate the eyes and skin.

This striking flowering tree can be seen in many locations around town, but on Boulevard Benito Juárez, as it passes by the Hotel Binniguenda in Santa Cruz, you will see several along the median next to the canal.

I understand that for many visitors to Huatulco, the draw is mainly to escape their freezing inhospitable winter climate. But for those who visit only October through March … you might be missing a major attraction!

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la villa, an ocean view Bed and Breakfast in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).

How the Jacaranda and Blue Hanami Came to Mexico – and the Japanese Paisajista Who Made It Happen

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

It was an accident, my obsession with the oh-so-blue jacaranda (pronounced hah-kah-RAHN-dah) tree. In February 1997, on a trip to Oaxaca City to run a session for a university conference, I thought, “I got this far, why don’t I just stay and go to the beach? I see this place called ‘Huatulco’ that’s only half an inch away on the Lonely Planet map.” Fortunately, others offered up Monte Alban as an after-conference activity (little did I know how very l-o-o-o-ng and difficult that half an inch would be – Huatulco had to wait until 2004).

So off we went to Monte Alban, which is probably the last time I climbed to the top of an ancient Mexican pyramid. And from there, I saw them. I saw blue-blossomed trees.

There are a few other trees with blue blossoms, and there are supposed to be about fifty kinds of jacarandas, but there is nothing like Jacaranda mimosifolia. They are native to a belt across South America that includes Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil (jacaranda means “fragrant” in the region’s indigenous guarani­ language).

In Mexico City, the jacarandas transform many streets into allées of soothing lavender-blue. While jacarandas are beloved by aphids, whose sticky poop turns fallen blossoms into a major nuisance, they also give the Easter season bloom time hanami, literally translated from the Japanese as “flower-viewing,” the ephemeral experience of enjoying the clouds of blossoms that cover trees before they get on to the business of being green.

The jacarandas seem other-worldly, reminding me of the cherry blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York City; at cherry-blossom time, Japanese families picnic on the petal-strewn lawn, transporting the casual observer to a state of hanami in some quiet Tokyo park. Oddly enough, it was the cherry blossoms that led to the installation of huge numbers of jacaranda trees in Mexico City.

Mexico’s president from 1930-32, Pascual Ortiz Rubio, wanted to symbolize the friendship between Mexico and Japan – with thousands of cherry trees. Considering the complex history of Mexico as a conquered, then independent, then revolutionary country, and the history of Japan as an imperial, then military, then functioning imperial country, it’s remarkable that the two countries have a relationship that goes back over four centuries.

Mexico and Japan – Way Back When

In 1598, the usefulness of a relationship between Mexico and Japan occurred to Tokugawa (Minamoto) Iyeyasu, the first shōgun (military dictator) of the Tokugawa Shogunate. In Yedo, now, centuries later, Tokyo, the shogun observed that the Philippines did a brisk trade with Mexico, and sought out a relationship with the Philippines that would allow their trans-Pacific shipping vessels to stop in Japan before reaching their destination in the Philippines.

Establishing said relationship was a rocky affair, since the Philippines were actually a Spanish colony from 1521 to 1898, and – based on experience – Spain didn’t think Japan had good intentions toward its merchant ships. It wasn’t until 1608, when a new Spanish governor, Don Rodrigo de Vivero, arrived in the Philippines, that negotiations got serious – but not for long. Recall that every European country with a navy was trying to get into Japan, and that the customs of courtesy in Japan were opaque to the Spaniards, which seemed to lead to offense at every turn. By 1636, the Spanish were excluded from Japan (as were the Portuguese, the first European country to trade with Japan). The Dutch, although confined to a small area of Japan, locked up trade with Japan until the mid-19th century.

In 1853, the role of the Japanese emperor was restored to primacy – no more military dictatorships with shoguns. Under Emperor Meiji, Japan began re-initiating diplomatic relations with other countries; the United States brought a great deal of pressure to bear, resulting in an 1858 treaty that basically forced Japan to begin trading with the West.

Mexico, independent from Spain since 1821, sent an expedition to Japan in 1874. The expedition was led by a scientist, Francisco Díaz Covarrubias, ostensibly to see a rare astrological phenomenon, the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. There’s little evidence that the scientific part of the expedition succeeded, but formal relations between the two countries resumed. In 1888, Matías Romero and Munemitsu Mutsu, the foreign ministers of Mexico and Japan, respectively, signed Japan’s first “equal” treaty with another country.

Back to the Cherry Trees . . . Not!

Remember President Ortiz Rubio’s request to the Japanese government to donate the thousands of cherry trees? Japan’s gift to the United States of over 3,000 cherries in 1912 had not been without botanical troubles of its own, so Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs contacted a Japanese horticulturalist/ landscape architect, who had been working for “all the right people” in Mexico for decades. Would the cherry trees be right for Mexico City?

Nope, the horticulturalist replied. To flower, the cherry tree would need a much sharper temperature change between winter and spring. The cherries were abandoned. But Tatsugoro Matsumoto (1861-1955) was not without a replacement suggestion – one he had been working on for quite a while.

Tatsugoro had studied to become an ueki-shi, or landscape architect, in Tokyo, and was so good that he never worked anywhere except in the imperial gardens. Japanese gardeners were sought after around the world. In 1888, at the age of 24, he was sent by the Japanese government to Peru to install a garden at a private residence called Quinta Heeren in Lima. Its owner, Óscar Agusto Heeren, the former Peruvian ambassador to Japan, had returned to Lima to work on enhancing relations between Peru and Japan.

En route to Peru, Tatsuguro visited Mexico, and was apparently impressed with the climate, growing conditions, and the national love of flowers and gardening. While working on his commission in Peru, he met José Landero y Coss, a wealthy rancher and mine owner from Mexico. Landero owned a hacienda, San Juan Hueyapan, in Pachuca, Hidalgo, that dated back to 1535 (built by one of the sons of Hernan Cortés); impressed with Tatsugoro’s work, Landero asked him to come to establish gardens at the hacienda.

The story gets a little hazy here, but Landero was influential in seeing to it that Tatsugoro went on to work in Mexico City, mostly for wealthy families. Tatsuguro decided to emigrate permanently to Mexico, although he returned briefly to Japan to say farewell to his family. Sending a shipment of Japanese plant materials from Yokohama to San Francisco to help with establishing himself in the nursery business, Tatsugoro decamped for California. His plants arrived after three months, dead as doornails, but in the meantime, he had received a commission for a Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park for a world’s fair in 1894.

The tea garden was so popular, it was almost immediately converted to a permanent garden – but by another Japanese landscape artist, not Tatsugoro, who had moved on in his plan to emigrate to Mexico. His certificate of immigration as a legal resident is a little loose with a few facts and illegible in spots. It is dated August of 1896, and reports that Tatsugoro was a widowed (really?) gardener; the birth date and age suffer from too much ink in the typewriter ribbon, but he would have been about 35. He is described as thin, a little over 5 feet tall, with black hair and eyebrows, brown skin and eyes, and a beard with grande moustache. He was of the “yellow” race and Buddhist religion.

From 1896 on, Tatsugoro worked in the most posh colonias (Roma and Condesa were developed right after the turn of the 20th century). A year after he had arrived in Mexico, Tatsugoro bought a house and set up a flower shop in La Romita, already being gentrified into Colonia Roma. While his immigration papers say Tatsugoro was a viudo (widower), there is other information to indicate that Tatasugoro’s wife had emigrated to join him and was running the flower shop. (Florería Matsumoto is still alive and well at Colima 92 in Col. Roma Norte, and is run by Tatsugoro’s great-granddaughter, Marie Furakaki Matsumoto – arrangements go from $700 to $1,000 mxn.)

The influential Landero may have provided Tatsugoro with a contact to introduce him to President Porfirio Díaz; in any event, by 1900, Díaz and his wife had taken note. Tatsugoro designed and maintained the gardens at the presidential residence, Chapultepec Castle, not to mention all the floral arrangements for inside the castle.

Life was definitely good – according to Tatsugoro’s grandson Ernesto, Díaz paid his grandfather 12 pesos a day, 240 times the minimum wage of 5 centavos. Ernesto says Díaz told Tatsugoro the salary was to enable him “to have a nursery to plant seeds and plants because in Mexico City there are prickly pear cactus and there are no trees.”

Jacarandas Needed

Trees there would be – blue-blossomed jacaranda trees. Tatsugoro certainly had obtained seeds and cuttings from South America well before the cherry-blossom consultation, but his role in introducing new species of flowering trees and shrubs got a big boost when his son showed up in 1910. Although Sanshiro Matsumoto, only about 15 or 16 when he reached Mexico, may never have actually seen his father, and no one has anything to say about why, if she actually did, his mother would hie off to Mexico leaving him behind, son and dad combined forces in the business.

Together, the Matsumotos enlarged the business from flower-shop to nursery, and undertook to import the plant materials needed to establish not just the jacaranda trees, but bougainvillea, camelias, hydrangeas, roses, and azaleas, along with bulbs (narcissus, tulips, gladioli) and chrysanthemums. Not to mention that they hybridized the poinsettia (noche buena) to the short, bushy Christmas-season form and installed the palm trees (not native to Mexico) that line Avenida Paseo de las Palmas in Lomas de Chapultepec. Sanshiro undertook to organize the business administratively, apparently not Tatsugoro’s strong suit, and they were able to buy fields and ranches for nursery properties. They grew on their trees, shrubs, bulbs, and flowers at Rancho El Batán, Hacienda de Temixco, and greenhouses in Tacubaya and San Pedro de Los Pinos.

Not only did Senshiro Matsumoto arrive in 1910, the centennial of the Mexican War of Independence, but Díaz decided to celebrate the centennial by inviting other countries to participate. Japan’s delegation, led by Baron Yasuya Uchida and his wife, coordinated their visit with a major exhibition of Japanese Arte Industrial at the Crystal Palace; beside the Palace (now the Museo Universitario del Chopo), Díaz had Tatsugoro create a small lake surrounded by a Japanese garden, which he himself, along with the Japanese delegation, inaugurated.

For the Matsumotos, 1910 was a good year; not so for Porfirio Díaz. The Porfiriato, while it modernized Mexico, was dictatorially oppressive and had lasted, with one interruption, since 1877. Having declared at one point that he would not run for President again, he reneged. Thus began the Mexican Revolution, which would last eleven years. The Matsumotos, however, were very astute at maintaining their connections with high society and ruling powers, and rode out the Revolution quite handily.

By the end of the conflict, and now amply supplied with jacarandas, Tatsugoro approached President Álvaro Obregón (term 1920-24) about the possiblity of lining important avenues and boulevards with the trees. The idea didn’t really take hold until President Rubio wanted the cherry trees, so the spring hanami in Mexico City and Oaxaca de Juárez turned out to be blue, not pink!

Beyond the Jacarandas

Later in the 20th century, the Matsumoto family, through their connections with Mexican presidents, along with their land holdings, would provide an important, unrelated service to Japanese immigrants during World War II. The United States pressured Mexico to follow its lead in creating concentration centers; Mexico decided that Japanese residents of Mexico City and Guadalajara should be interned. The Matsumotos served as go-betweens between the Mutual Aid Committee of the Japanese and the government of President Manuel Ávila Camacho. They offered up both the Rancho El Batán and Hacienda de Temixco as places for Japanese to live and grow their own food until the end of the war. One presumes the Matsumotos themselves stayed home in Colonia Roma.

Later on, Senshiro was approached by President Adolfo López Mateos (term 1958-64), who was looking for space for a housing complex. Where Rancho El Batán once grew jacarandas, now sits Unidad Independencia with 65 single-family residences, 35 multi-family buildings with 1500 apartments, three towers with 100 luxury apartments, social and educational services, a sports center, a supermarket, a medical clinic, an open air theater, and more. Senshiro’s only request was that no trees be cut down.

 

Even Guinness Acknowledges Oaxaca’s Famous Tree

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

In the town of Santa María del Tule, just seven miles and no more than a 15-minute drive from the city of Oaxaca, stands the tree with the widest girth in the world. Both Guinness World Records and National Geographic acknowledge the stature of this 2,000-year-old Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum). Attracting more visitors every year than any other tourism site in the entire state, the tree means much more to the residents of the region than simply its record-breaking size. And no, despite the occasional suggestion to the contrary, it’s not the oldest or tallest tree, nor the one with the greatest volume. In Spanish this type of cypress is known as a sabino, in Nahuatl as an ahuehuete, and in Zapotec as yagaguichiciña.

Santa María del Tule derives its name from two sources:

1. Its 18th-century church, dubbed El Templo de Santa María de la Asunción (Temple of the Virgin Mary of the Assumption).
2. Tule, which comes from the Nahuatl word tulle or tullin which means bulrush; the municipality used to be a lake surrounded by marshes including cypress trees, and bulrushes.

Because of the tree’s economic importance to the town and municipality, and indeed for the state of Oaxaca, over the years all levels of government, even the feds, have taken steps to ensure its continued health and more importantly its haughty worldwide status. In fact, Mexico has recognized the tree as part of the country’s heritage (Patrimonio de México).

In addition to a large complement of employees, which of course includes security police, the tree employs two full-time arborists to keep it in good spirits. When the botanists became concerned about the likely adverse impact over time of vehicular gasoline and diesel fumes and the sheer weight of all that traffic, the main highway to and from the tree was actually moved a hundred yards or so away. The old road was converted into a pedestrian corridor.

Because of its size and the impact of climate change, a further concern became water shortage. Thus a well was dug, and an underground sprinkler system was installed, extending far out from the trunk so as to guarantee the root system did not shrivel and die of thirst.

This part of the town has about a dozen other large cypress trees, one of which is roughly 1,500 years old and in close proximity to its older sister. About a decade ago one of the trees was struck and damaged by lightning. As a consequence, the authorities decided that the lightning rod at the time was not close enough to most of the trees, and so a new one was erected to better ensure against lightning strikes.

Once its massive girth became acknowledged by pre-Hispanic populations such as the Mixe, Mixtec and Zapotec ethnic groups, the tree was worshipped and in fact became the subject of mythology. Both the town’s baroque church and the municipal offices were constructed right beside the tree, a recognition of its importance at least for indigenous groups, long before the tourism boom.

Tourists only began to flock in earnest in the 1940s with the arrival of the Pan American highway system. With the locals already converging at the tree for ritual, what better way to attempt to have them recognize the importance of modern government and Catholicism than to erect buildings right there, alongside and almost on top of the tree. Even today, when town gatherings are convened, two men stand atop the government offices and blow a conch as a reminder of an imminent meeting.

A gardener’s delight, the grounds are kept immaculate, in large part as a result of the irrigation system. Trees, bushes, flowering shrubs and topiaries abound. The grass puts to shame the greens of the golf course just outside the state capital. With the lovely natural environment in front of the church and tree, the town has become a favorite spot for Oaxacans to celebrate weddings and quinceañera parties (when a young girl turns 15), and it’s a photographer’s dream. And with the site’s increasing popularity for rites of passage festivities, numerous event halls have sprung up within walking distance of the tree and church, one of which is a restored hacienda.

Weekends, especially Sundays, have become customary days for Oaxacans to visit the tree for family outings. Accordingly, a plethora of restaurants, smaller eateries and stalls selling barbacoa and carnitas have become favorite brunch and comida spots for not only locals from Oaxaca, but also national and international tourists. The town marketplace now houses a large craft section where one can pick up all manner of Oaxacan crafts.

Regardless of your interest in visiting Oaxaca, the short drive to Santa María del Tule should be a must for everyone arriving in the city, or for that matter anywhere in the central valley districts. It’s along the highway that takes you to Teotitlán del Valle (rugs), Tlacochahuaya (16th century church with restored 17th century German organ), the Sunday market at Tlacolula, mezcal factories, the ruin at Mitla and Hierve el Agua (bubbling springs).

The Montezuma cypress at Santa María del Tule is still growing, and boasts roughly:

· Age of 2,000 years
· Height of 40 meters
· Weight of 630 tons
· Circumference of 40 meters
· Diameter of 12 meters

Alvin Starkman first visited Santa María del Tule in 1969. A permanent resident of Oaxaca, he operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

In the Dog Days of Quarantine… What We’re Reading

By Carole Reedy

This past month I asked my avid-reader friends to share with The Eye the books that have accompanied them in their seemingly never-ending hours of free time during the Covid-19 quarantine.

When the replies arrived, they inevitably started with “Well, I haven’t been reading much these days,” or “I’m having trouble concentrating on anything but news of the virus.” From personal experience I know that one of the repercussions of grief is difficulty concentrating. Could this be grief?

Coincidentally, a friend sent me an article with some insights on this very topic from Oliver J. Robinson, a neurologist and psychologist based in London. Briefly, some of Dr. Robinson’s insights: We are living in a time of uncertainty; we don’t know what to expect. Nothing is certain, and we’re “trying to resolve an uncertainty that is unresolvable.” In addition, we are experiencing loss of control. These feelings are generating anxiety.

“But I’d be lying if I tried to say this is what anxiety is, and this is why people are having difficulty concentrating,” he adds.

I too had difficulty reading during the first days of isolation, but find now that I’m back in the swing. Once we shift our thinking and establish new home routines, perhaps the relaxing act of reading will bring us joy again.

According to The Reading Agency, a UK literary charity, reading has increased by a third, especially in the 18-25 age group. The trend is to comfort, with fiction highlighted, especially crime/mystery and the classics. James Daunt, chief executive of the British bookseller Waterstones, believes “many people may plump for poetry to provide a more detached contemplation during times of stress.” After 9/11, poetry sales increased, supporting Daunt’s theory for a need for “books that encourage or support contemplation.”

With that said, I hope this list of diverse books and the observations that accompany them are helpful as you search for reading satisfaction in an uncertain time.

PLAGUE LITERATURE

First, however, I offer you some plague literature. Often it’s helpful to look to the past. Note that these plagues lasted years, not months, with similarities to our current virus. The precautions were for them the same as our own: stay in, close businesses, avoid crowds. The phrase “waiting for a vaccine” wasn’t part of their vocabulary. The rich were able to leave the cities (the reason Henry the VIII was always moving from castle to castle), but the poor were condemned to stay and try to survive in the metropolitan areas to make their living. Some things never change.

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (published in 1722 about the Great Plague of London in 1665). Defoe was just five years old when that plague hit London in 1665, so his account is academic rather than first-hand, as opposed to that of Samuel Pepys in his Diary. Pepys actually lived through the plague years. Defoe’s work is a novel disguised as fact; the story relates the personal experiences of a survivor of the plague, and also addresses the societal repercussions on the poor.

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (written in the 1350s after the plague of 1348-53). The 100 stories of The Decameron have satisfied readers for hundreds of years. A far different point of storytelling than that of Defoe.

The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni (written in 1827; the action takes place in the early 1600s, ending with the plague year of 1630). This is one of the most frequently read novels in Italian literature. It is a love and adventure story at heart, but the last quarter is about the plague. It’s slow going sometimes, with a lot of detail, which is my kind of book!

Hilary Mantel’s Trilogy (some call it The Tudor Trilogy or the Wolf Hall Trilogy) consists of three novels based on the life of the influential Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII: Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the just-released The Mirror and the Light. These books provide terrific reading in times of isolation. Mantel picks you up and drops you in the world of merry old England in the 16th century. She has a unique and refreshing style in these novels, as in all her writing. The New Yorker magazine writer Jia Tolentino describes Mantel’s talent succinctly: “Mantel writes history like it’s always on the cusp of occurring.”

The Guardian recently quoted Hilary Mantel in a speech at the prestigious Hay Festival: “The Tudors were very good at quarantine in those days. They took it very seriously. I think he [Thomas Cromwell] would have locked us down for a bit longer.”

LITERARY FICTION

First, a short note from Larry in Denver with advice about a different way to read if you feel too distracted to concentrate on the written word.

“I try to walk every day, and rather than listen to news or music, I listen to audiobooks. I’ve been listening to a lot of Dickens and especially like the reader Simon Vance. He makes Dickens’ prose and characters come alive. No matter how many characters, he is able to distinguish all of them for the listener, so there’s never any doubt about who is carrying the narrative. So far, I’ve listened (or I should day re-listened) to Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and Oliver Twist. All have been great fun and entertaining. Vance also reads the novels of one of my all-time favorite authors Patrick O’Brien and his British naval history novels.”

Barbara from Mexico City listens to audio books when she goes to bed. The only negative she reports is finding her place in the book the next morning as she inevitably falls asleep, even during the most compelling of stories. Maybe audio books will become an insomnia remedy too.

History of the Rain: A Novel by Niall Williams (via Kirby in Chicago).
Kirby says he’s reading this beautifully written novel very slowly as he doesn’t want it to end. When I asked about the theme, he said “Reading, it’s about reading, Carole.” I immediately downloaded the book to my iPad. The novel takes place in Ireland, on the banks of the Shannon River at Faha, in County Clare, Ireland. Since I’ve read only a few pages, I offer The Guardian’s description:

“The novel is suffused with … other worldliness while being rooted in the everyday. It is also crammed with literature, from Ruth’s beloved Charles Dickens – whose caricatures find contemporary equivalents in the inhabitants of Faha – to Robert Louis Stevenson, whose bed-ridden genius she closely identifies with, along with Dickinson’s elliptical solitude. The river and the endless rain are so present they become characters in themselves: Ruth notes wryly that in Ireland it has rained for ‘800 years’.

Lovers of the 19th-century novel will devour this book. I’m amazed and enchanted by it, and I imagine Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope smiling from their graves. I guarantee you will fall in love with the protagonist, the bed-ridden, young and sassy lass Ruth.

Weather: A Novel by Jenny Offill (via Marilyn in St. Petersburg, Florida).
Marilyn describes this very popular (I am on a 13-week waitlist at the library) new work by Offill, author of the well-regarded short novel, Department of Speculation.

“It is short bursts of beautiful prose, almost more like a poem and yet has character development, plot, humor. I read it in one sitting,” Marilyn writes.

The Dutch House: A Novel by Anne Patchett (via Phyllis from Chicago). We fans of Anne Patchett know she is uneven at times, but this novel is Anne Patchett at her best.

Phyllis agrees: “I love Patchett for her humor, quickness, and real-person humanity. She always provides a moves-along read, perfect for the pandemic. So I liked this story about a hapless brother and sister whose lives are upended by a move into this unusual house.”

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (via Phyllis and also Camille from Boise).
Thanks to the astute decisions of publishers, these days we’re experiencing many excellent literary works based on the immigrant and the emigration experience. Phyllis says that of all she has read about “the immigrant experience,” this one stands out.

The Guardian expressed the magic of this book: “Her new novel resonates with an unexpected simplicity that is profound and unsettling. Richard, a self-contained widower and newly retired academic, discovers empathy through delving into the individual ordeals of a group of African asylum seekers in Berlin whom he gradually befriends and tries to help.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz: A Novel by Heather Morris (via Paulina from San Agustinillo, Oaxaca, with roots in Sligo, Ireland). Paulina enjoyed this book even though some factual historical inaccuracies have recently been found in it. But we must remember, it IS a novel.

Jon Sopel, news broadcaster, comments on the novel: “It really helped me put the privations of COVID lockdown into context. I suspect if I’d read it when it first came out. I would have been moved by the terribleness and evil of the setting, but the story is really about the indomitable nature of the human spirit, how even in the worst of human circumstances there is space for compassion and a sliver of hope.”

MEMOIR AND BIOGRAPHY

A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin (Holly in Grayslake, Illinois). This memoir of a Jewish family fleeing the Soviet Union in 1989 begins on a humorous note with the young son of the family relating the challenges of the Soviet system and the process of leaving the Ukraine, arriving in Vienna and ultimately the US. But midway through the book the tone becomes sober and dark when we learn the effect the flight and uncertainty has on the young man. It is a beautifully executed, well-paced story with many aspects over more than 20 years in a variety of locales in the world.

Talking Heads by British playwright Allen Bennett (via Kirby in Chicago).
This monologue/diary was originally a BBC production, but is now in print. David Sedaris says it is the book he gives as a gift as “it is pretty much the best thing ever.”

Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier by Victoria James (via Kathy in Seattle). The youngest, at age 21, American sommelier from a Michelin-starred restaurant, James relates how she struggled through a childhood of abuse and humiliation before reaching her stunning position.

Our friend Kathy Kaye, who recommended this memoir, has top credentials for judging it, as she too is a writer and winemaker. For years she traveled from her home north of Seattle to the vineyard she and her partner owned east of the Cascades, producing a variety of wine there.

When she wasn’t growing, cultivating, and testing wines, Kathy wrote, and still writes, novels. The Case of the Missing Cobras and Death at 21 Brix: A Warehouse Winery Mystery both fall in the crime/mystery genre, but they are much more. Apart from being compelling reads, requiring meticulous research, the novels deal with issues of ecological conservation, rare species, and man’s role in nature (Missing Cobras) and the many-faceted aspects of wine making (Death at 21 Brix). Kathy also has a star-studded career in medical writing.

Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen (via Barbara and Carole from Mexico City). In this memoir, Allen tries to convince us that he is not an intellectual, citing the fact that the only reading he did before the age of 18 involved comic books. However, he is unsuccessful in this endeavor. The tone of the book (you don’t need to listen to the audio version to hear Allen’s voice), vocabulary, structure, and ease of reading are proof that genius lurks in the written and visual works of the lovable neurotic. The first half of the book is his life story, followed by a thorough analysis of the problems that grew out of his relationship with Mia Farrow.

HISTORICAL FICTION

Winds of War by Herman Wouk (via Sue in Denver). “I had never read this classic and am finding it totally prescient for the period we are experiencing. So many comparisons between Hitler and Trump!”

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (via Betty in Mexico City and Nancy in Chicago).
The eight books (of an anticipated ten) and the subsequent TV series have been popular since 1991. They cover years of time travel from 1743 in Scotland to the modern-day US. Both Betty and Nancy are totally absorbed – or rather, obsessed – with the series.

MYSTERIES AND CRIME

The Tale Teller: A Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito Novel by Anne Hillerman (via Stuart from Sedona, Arizona). You may recognize the surname. Yes, Anne is Tony Hillerman’s daughter, and has continued his fine tradition of writing novels that take place on a Navajo Indian reservation and environs, always centered around a crime committed and sprinkled with tradition and superstition. There are three more books in the series, all New York Times best sellers.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (via fellow book-club member Janet).
Janet is an avid reader of nonfiction, but in these days of upheaval she enjoyed this “thriller that is hard to put down; no problem with lack of concentration with this book!”

The Lynley-Havers series by Elizabeth George
We fans are eagerly awaiting the next, the 21st(!) book in the series. Many mystery/crime readers have followed the series based in Great Britain from the first book in 1988, A Great Deliverance, in which we’re introduced to Inspector Thomas Lynley, Lord Asherton, of Scotland Yard, and to his contrary assistant Barbara Havers.

Interestingly, the author is an American who has been praised for her accuracy in the depiction of the British citizens and police. You need not read the books in order, although part of the attraction of the series is the development of each character and the relationships with one another as the years pass. The mystery story almost seems secondary. We’re happy to wait a couple of years between books that are well researched and lengthy.

The V.I. Warshawski series by Sara Paretsky (from Chicago, via our writer friend Joan Chandler). “I decided to dive into one of Sara Paretsky’s novels featuring her great character V.I. Warshawski. V.I. lives in a perpetual state of moral outrage (which suits my mood). She’s acutely aware that it’s not always a welcome trait. I like that honesty. Sara Paretsky lives in Chicago and includes all the local color in her stories.”

Paretsky’s newest novel hit the shelves in April. It’s called Dead Land, and her publisher has promised that both the author and protagonist are as “dogged and ferocious” as ever.

French and Italian Detectives. Other readers look to European writers for intrigue: Martin Walker has created a niche for mystery fans as well as for gourmet cooks, with more than 15 books in his series that takes place in the Perigord region of France. The protagonist is Benoît “Bruno” Courrèges, a rather unconventional village cop who doesn’t carry an official gun and claims to have lost the key to his handcuffs.

Farther south in Sicily, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, created by Andrea Camilleri, also enjoys good food. The books are packed with tempting treats from sumptuous Sicilian kitchens. Fifteen of the eighteen novels have been translated into English. I have become a lasting fan of this compassionate, humor-loving, cynical detective.

Travelers to these two countries will savor the novels before and during their visits. In addition to the entertaining detective stories, both Camilleri and Walker write non-fiction and/or historical novels.

SHORT STORIES

Frank O’Connor short stories (via Mexican resident–by way of Belfast, London, Zambia, and Italy–Caroline Falasco). Caroline found among the collection of her family’s books a 1953 anthology of these short stories by the master of the genre. Inside the inscription under her parents’ names read “Belfast 1954.” Caroline writes to me: “an emotional find.” I suspect many of us are experiencing similar emotions as we sort through drawers, closets, and bookshelves in this time of physical and emotional cleansing.

NON-FICTION

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe (via Susan from Paris). This exceedingly readable tome that takes place in the Emerald Isle maps out the “troubles” in the guise of a mystery kidnapping/murder. It was my number two of favorite books of 2019, right after Milkman: A Novel by Anna Burns, which explores similar themes. The combination of research and lucid prose is the reason Say Nothing remains on many bestseller lists.

The following two books by distinguished writers in the field are recommended by medical editor and author Kathy (mentioned above). They seem appropriate to list considering the mysteries we are living through these days: From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel Dennett and Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen.

There are so many other stories to read. With hope for a new and different future, I promise more recommendations in the months to come. Stay in and stay safe!

And the Earth Moved!

By Brooke Gazer

Yes, there’s been “a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on” down here but we are all fine. The activity began Monday night with two shakes around 8 PM. I was in the pool during the second one and it certainly created a big splash. The big one that hit Tuesday morning caught me in the shower at 10:30 AM. We are accustomed the odd shake-rattle-and-roll, so normally I kind of ignore them. However, this one felt a bit stronger and I grabbed my towel, wondering if I’d have time to get dressed before I needed to evacuate. Then it stopped and as I walked from the bathroom to the bedroom, my jaw dropped. The far side of the bedroom was covered with broken glass, books, and bits of memorabilia that had flown off the bookshelf. I’m thinking I was pretty lucky because not ten minutes earlier, I was sitting in that same spot, grooming my dog.

In the kitchen there were several broken items on the floor, along with the contents of broken storage jars: flour, sugar, coffee and spices. We found the same kind of chaos in our office/library.

The good news is that that was the extent of the damage, no structural damage, no broken windows, no broken pipes, and most importantly, no broken bones. Our maid helped get the house back in order before she left to assess the damage to her own home. We are still practicing social distancing in Huatulco, so her ten-year-old son was home alone. She called him, and fortunately he had run to his grandmother’s house and everyone there was okay.

Since that episode, we have felt dozens of aftershocks, nothing nearly as great, but it does put you on edge. Our poor dog, he is far more sensitive and every new wave sends him into a tizzy. Like Chicken Little, I’m sure he believes “the sky is falling.” At about 2:00 PM the day after the earthquake, my husband and I took him for a car ride through the center of town, thinking he would feel better in a moving car than a moving house. That helped to calm him. He is still a bit on edge but has stopped whining every time the earth moves.

One of the advantages of living in a FONATUR development is that the resources are there to get things cleaned up quickly (Oh, just felt another shake and my computer screen is still wobbling). There were several rock slides and a large tree blocked the highway in Tangolunda. All this had been cleared off the roads by the time we got there. In the town center there is some damage to facades and a lot of roof tiles on the ground. But we did not see any collapsed buildings.

I thought we might stop at the Italian specialty store, but it was closed. I looked in the window and it was distressing. Half their stock had fallen on the floor; broken bottles of wine and jars of imported condiments. To me, this is the biggest tragedy, because I am sure this was not an isolated incident. After three months of pandemic lockdown, in this town that exists only for tourism, many small businesses have been holding on by a rather thin thread. I fear that losing their stock may snap that final thread.

New Year of the Trees

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

A deep appreciation for trees is integral to Judaism.  Trees are mentioned over a hundred times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Hebrew generic word for fruit also appears over a hundred times. In addition, specific trees and fruits that grew in ancient Israel, including the date, fig, olive, and persimmon, are described and praised throughout the Bible.

Two trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge, are central to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, as is a fruit that they were not supposed to eat but did. The tree of life later came to be metaphorically associated with the entirety of Judaic knowledge or with the totality of human generations, and representations of the tree of life are commonly found in synagogues, works of art, and the titles of books or movies. Traditional sayings about the tree of life are commonly inscribed in Hebrew on the walls or doors of Jewish schools and places of worship.

When the State of Israel was reestablished in 1948, much of the land had been stripped bare of trees during the centuries when most Jews had been in exile. A major effort was launched to turn Israel’s desert land into fertile areas of orchards and forests. Trees were planted that were the same species that Jews had nurtured 3,000 years earlier at the time of King David.  Children around the world collected coins to support that effort, and each was rewarded with a certificate stating that a tree had been planted in Israel with the funds they provided.  The beautiful lush forests and orchards in modern Israel are testimony to the success of that effort. In those early years, many people during their first trip to Israel would ask to see “their tree” – but it was impossible to identify individual trees that had been established with particular donations.

Many Jewish holidays incorporate fruit and nuts into festival meals and traditions.  On Passover, a sweet mixture of chopped fruits and nuts, called “charoset,” offsets the taste of horseradish, eaten to remember the bitterness of slavery.  On the spiritual New Year, Rosh HaShanah, apples dipped in honey are served to wish the family and guests a sweet year the year round. In the fall at the festival of Sukkot (tabernacles), branches of the myrtle, willow and date palm are bundled together and, along with the fruit of the citron tree. are used in a celebratory ritual.

Not only do trees and fruit play an important role in Jewish holidays, but they have been awarded a holiday of their own – the New Year of the Trees. The holiday is commonly called Tu B’Shevat, which means the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat, the date of the holiday on the Hebrew lunar calendar. On the secular calendar, Tu B’Shevat falls in January or February. While in some places, such as Mexico City, the temperature on Tu B’Shevat can be bitter cold and the trees still dormant, and in other places such as coastal Oaxaca the weather can be witheringly hot and dry, in Israel or Guadalajara Tu B’Shevat is a time when trees begin to flower.

Tu B’Shevat is celebrated in different ways depending on the community. Many communities essentially celebrate an Earth Day, providing information about sustainable growing methods.

Others hold seders, which are meals incorporating seven species of fruits and grains mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures. Some communities in temperate climates plant trees, while other communities raise funds for planting trees in Israel. Almost everyone celebrating Tu B’Shevat eats fruit.

One of our favorite Tu B’Shevat celebrations took place in Huatulco with The Eye staff and their partners. Everyone brought a dish made with fruit for brunch – a delicious variety of salads, frittatas, salsas, cakes and cookies. We talked about and sampled four kinds of fruit and compared them to human personalities – hard on the outside but soft inside; soft on the outside but hard on the inside; soft on the outside and inside; and hard on the outside and inside. And then everyone told a story about a favorite tree they remembered from a period in their life.

Tu B’Shevat is a relatively minor holiday. It is not mentioned in the Scriptures but rather was discussed by rabbis in the Talmud – Jewish oral tradition written down around the year 500. But for those of us who love trees, it is a wonderful time to appreciate their diversity and the bounty they provide and to commit ourselves to their protection.