Featured

Fire is Tenacious

April 17, 2021

Yesterday, I burned my fingers. Not badly, but it was when I learned the ground can be hot after a forest fire.

Don’t play with fire, mother said. This, though, was unintentional.

Ixchel Tucker and I had headed up to the village of San Juan Tlacotenco, where the temperature right now is noticeably less oppressive than in the lower area where we both live. We aimed to walk a little and check out the route we can never quite find that leads back over the mountains to a village on ‘our’ side of part of the range of cerros. To finish up, before the sun began to slide behind the trees, we checked out a path she’d been on before, trying to identify if it was close to the route that interested us.

We had barely gone 300 yards when we realised we were in an area that had recently been hit by the hillside fires. The ground was not uniformly black, nor were all the trees scorched, but there was a discernible smell of woodsmoke still in the air. 

The edge of Mordor? The foreground soil was black and charred, yet a hundred yards away, the trees were untouched.

Looking about, I found a small wisp of smoke still rising from the earth beside the trail. I tried kicking soil over the hot-spot with my shoe, but the smoke kept rising. So, I bent down to scoop the soil better with my fingers.

I didn’t know that earth itself, which has a lot of organic matter in it, can keep burning without a visible flame. However, one ‘Ouch’ later, I found out. Fire in a forest isn’t just a surface phenomenon, but one that gets down into the ground. Ixchel had a story of finding that a small fire at a place here where she’d lived had followed the line of a root towards its parent tree, and having to act fast to prevent the tree igniting. (She worked once in the insurance business, and is a mine of knowledge about the ways fire can do damage).

Further away, but down a slippery slope, there was a stronger veil of smoke rising. We assumed the local firefighters, who have lengthy collective experience, were letting this burn out, and had not just overlooked it. But the experience did bring home how and why fires are so hard to put out on verdant mountainsides. 

Three inches or more of fine grey wood-ash, along with a few charred stumps of small trees.

Simply eliminating the flames is a first step, but the ground stays hot and, in some cases, remains in combustion. There’s an element of whack-a-mole to firefighting in such places, along with the complications arising from weather conditions. A steady rain-shower a few nights ago helped extinguish the big fires we had in the hills, but that was after a couple of days of intensive firefighting led by trained teams, and heavily supported by water-dumping helicopters. And still, as my slightly singed fingertips told me, there was the potential for a new flare-up.

Our temperatures remain high, predicted to average 30 deg C through the coming week. Even at night, they only go down to about 15 degrees. That makes the mornings very fresh and pleasant, but the afternoons oppressive. And it does little to suppress emerging or continuing fires.

We aren’t simply fire-gawkers, and we weren’t looking to get close to the areas the fires had touched. We both appreciate that a live fire can spread fast, especially if an evening wind springs up. But for the next few weeks, we need to be watchful if we go hiking on the hillsides, to be sure that not only do we avoid the live fires, but also look out for the residue of fires supposedly quenched.

Featured

An Old Train Station

November 5, 2020

Trains were always around when I grew up. My home town in south-east England had – and still has – nine train stations on two lines within its municipal borders, and there was a train marshalling yard a few hundred yards from my primary school. The relative absence of passenger trains in Canada and the US always struck me as a noticeable lack.

A preserved steam engine from the early 1900s at the train museum in Cuautla, Morelos.

Mexico was slow to get going on railroads, and only had its first passenger line, from Mexico City to the port of Veracruz, operational in 1873. By then, the UK and the US had had trains for over four decades. Further, Mexico abandoned inter-city passenger lines in the second half of the 20th Century, only later realising their usefulness as the drawbacks of the internal combustion engine became progressively more apparent.

As an alternative to some of the more ankle-risking paths round here, Ixchel and I have recently been walking sections of old rail track above the town of Tepoztlan. The rails and almost all the sleepers are gone from it, with mostly broken limestone making up the trail. But it’s used by cars and a few trucks, and since it climbs at a shallow gradient, it doesn’t make for an arduous afternoon’s hike. The mountains rise up to the north, but at certain points, there are vistas over many miles to be seen to the south.

Along the former train tracks outside San Juan Tlacotenco.

The village of San Juan Tlacotenco is reached today by car or bus, the road corkscrewing up hundreds of feet above what is now the far larger town of Tepoztlan. But in 1897, when the rail line from Mexico City to the town of Cuernavaca (the Cuaunahuac of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano) was extended to this region, San Juan got the station, not Tepoz. Perhaps the decision was based on the relative importance of the two places, or the difficulty in building the line down the mountainside in that area. Our hikes had already shown us how much had to be done to create the line, blasting through rocks, spanning wide gulleys, and cutting into hillsides that could produce mudslides in the rainy season. Nineteenth Century infrastructure called for a lot of backbreaking labour and vast amounts of earth-moving. Nature has reclaimed the sides of the trail, but it’s still easy to imagine old steam trains, and the later diesels, chugging along the track.

We’d already been surprised on our walk by the village cemetery, picturesquely sited under steep hills, and feeling somehow busy after the Days of the Dead had filled it with marigolds and candles. Satisfied with photos we’d taken, and having compared the styles of grave compared to the types closer to where we live, we followed the track’s old loop past the fringes of the village, and back to the roadway where we’d parked our aging Ford Explorer. 

The long, red wooden shack seemed insignificant at first, until we noticed some hand-painted signage on it, and a pair of big, rusting wheels in front of it. We then realised it was the old station, abandoned since at least 1997, when this section of the line was torn up. We began taking photos, happy to have found what seemed to be a modest relic of a different time. A relic, too, that perhps wouldn’t last that many more years. Part of it had become a small grocery store, while another section had a sign indicating (I thought) that it was a photographic studio.

The former wooden station for El Parque, still in its traditional red paint.

Outside, weathered signs said the station was at 2,306 metres of altitude (7,576 ft), and 91.7 kilometres (56 miles) by rail from Mexico City. I’d seen such data at the train station museum in the nearby city of Cuautla, so I assume it was usual to include it.

We were about to move on, when a woman with a small child, who was at the edge of a sports field opposite the relic station, remarked to us that there was a museum to be seen. Without being asked, she went to fetch the grocery store owner, who opened the “photographic studio,” which I then realised was the one-room museum. Inside were mementoes of local soccer victories, and also a bunch of photos of trains going back a century. 

Photos on the little museum’s walls.

One that caught my attention showed federal troops at the station in Cuernavaca, presumably preparing to fight Emiliano Zapata’s revolutionaries. That period, with its dreadful upheavals, violence and sacrifice, fascinates me, and it’s still celebrated every year. Many of the most famous photographic images from the time show people on or beside trains, even though the decade of conflict actually degraded the rail system quite severely. Some Mexicans argue it never truly recovered, even after being nationalised in 1937.

Soldiers around 1910, waiting to board a train in Cuernavaca. Troops are lined up at the right.

The station, for reasons we didn’t discover, was called El Parque – the Park. The Chichinautzin nature preserve is all around San Juan, but that wasn’t formally created until 1947. The site was, however, always surrounded by trees and hillside farmland. One day, perhaps, we’ll find out why that name was selected.

Meantime, a hike we’d started simply for basic exercise had put us in touch with a fading but still remembered piece of Mexico’s history. It’s one of the benefits of living here that there are odd quirks and relics of human endeavours to be found all over the place. Some are fragments of ruins, signs of the ancient cultures of Mexico. And others are reminders of people and changes that have happened far more recently, but which are still treasured in memory.