The High Hills

February 16, 2020

As the sun comes up every morning, it hits the upper cliffs behind me, to the west, some minutes before I see it rise over the ridge in the east. If I walk part of the way into town, as I did today, my path runs for a couple of miles south of the same mountains in which the village nestles, while ahead of me I can see long-extinct volcanoes rising several miles west of the town.

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The cliffs over which the Sun rises each morning. This was taken in late afternoon, so they’re sunlit.

My perspective here is always governed by the mountains around me. And I’m not just surrounded by mountains, but by stratified mountains. The layers in the rockfaces are very clear in many places, and the sense of how many thousand of centuries were needed to lay them down isn’t far from my thoughts. I don’t know a lot about the seismic forces that heaved up these mountains that once formed the bed of a lost sea, but the whole deal took a very, very long time. Even a young mountain, like the volcano Popocatepetl, dates back an estimated 730,000 years.

On a purely human level, this village is reported by archeologists to have been populated for 3,500 years. There are petroglyphs around in various places, and in the town nearby are some ruined walls that are seven centuries old, or older. An hour’s drive would bring me to a half-dozen places that date back anywhere from six centuries to two millennia.


The cerros along the trail into town. The rise and fall of ancient seabeds is recorded in those rocks.

I wouldn’t say people spend a lot of time brooding on how ancient things are in this area, but it’s hard to be unconscious of how far back everything goes. Before I came here I’d spent four decades in Toronto, which only dates back a couple of centuries as a built-up town. And there are no nearby mountains or large, exposed rocks, with the exception of the Scarborough Bluffs. The oldest European settlements in Canada date to the mid-1500s, a short time after Cortes and the other Conquistadores began taking what we now call Latin America. The Spanish were dreadful at destroying the records of their predecessors on this continent, but enough information has survived to give us some idea of what those ancient people did, and what they believed. Archeology has excavated other civilisations that were old and gone before the Spanish booked their fateful ocean cruises.

This sense of always being surrounded in Mexico by old things has an effect on my perceptions. I might, as I did in my last post, lament the recent developments around me, but the age of the land, along with the length of human habitation –a habitation interwoven with an appreciation of that land – offers a counterpoint to all that. It underlines the change that’s happening, but geology also has a way of mocking human efforts to copy mountains with much smaller piles of stones. The inhabitants themselves still carry the look of indigenous people, reminding the eye that so much has come and gone, or come and not left.

Mexico can infuriate someone used to tidy streets and gardens. It can stun us at times with poverty, and it can seem hidebound by its rich yet hardly intellectual Catholicism.

But it always offers also the presence of things from times memorial and immemorial. In this way, it has an antidote to the frenetic, frantic pace of things around us: the divided politics, the rush to pave and exploit the land, and the recurrent fear that we might be losing everything.

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Hexagonal basalt rocks overhang a walkway at the Salto de San Anton waterfall in nearby Cuernavaca. At the bottom centre, you can see where a fall of these rocks in 2017 destroyed part of the balustrade.

And it reminds us, too, how no culture survives forever. No-one knows for sure who was here those three-and-a-half millennia back, but new peoples and empires washed over this land in that time, and were in turn replaced.

Compared to all that, electoral cycles, economic ups and downs, and the latest epidemic slot into a very different world-view to the mainstream perspectives. I don’t necessarily find the mountains friendly – they can be overwhelming – but they do teach a perpetually important lesson in frenzied times.


Mountains Aren’t Necessarily Mountains

February 7, 2020

You can tell a mountain is a mountain, because it’s big, and high, and probably involves exposed rock. But when you spend time on a mountain, unless you’re really up high on a barren or icy area, you’re on ground. There’s probably grass plus some small plants, and many mountains, like those around my home, have lots of trees on them. In short, they tend to be just like regular countryside, only steeper. They’re less mountainy, the more mountain-sided I am as an observer.

My ambiguity about mountains stems partly from living right under one: familiarity breeds maybe not contempt, but a certain boredom. About sixty yards back of my house, there’s a cliff that rises and recedes in stages for several hundred feet. To the right, or north, there’s a jagged area of exposed rock where a bunch of the stuff came down a long time ago. I often wonder if there’s more of it waiting for a good quake in order to come down on the house, but no-one here remembers it falling in their lifetime.

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Mountains near my home. The ridge at the rear is to the north, and rises almost a thousand feet above our village.

But my favourite view from here isn’t of the bluffs curving round to the north and across the east, with the little valley that clefts them. Nor is it the more dramatic bluffs a few hundred yards to the east, which screen the rising Sun from the village, and ascend as much as 700 ft from the village streets, which are already at 4500 ft above sea level. Rather, it’s the view to the south, where the hills and mountains are five or six miles away, or further.

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The view from my home down to the hills around Yautepec, a short time before sunset.

There, they recede in a blue haze of uncertain detail, which means they can imply almost anything: wildness, inaccessible heights, or concealed caves with giants, heroes or dragons. I don’t mean that I believe in such things, having seen no dragons nor giants, and encountered few real heroes in this part of Mexico. But the effect of seeing them calls on such ideas from deep within.

It’s this ilusion of mountains that began to fascinate me after a year or so. They are, I decided, much more interesting as ideas than as concrete realities, which means they’re much more appealing from a mile or two away. And seen from a dozen times that distance, they conjure up all kinds of fantasies and mythic whisperings.

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On a day when it has no snow, but is giving off a faint halo of steam from the summit, the cone of Popocateteptl rises over a low point in the hills east of my village.

My point is that we’re programmed for mountains to inspire us. Up close, as I said, they’re just a lot of raised ground, often hard to ascend comfortably. The best they can offer (which can be very good indeed) is a vie down across lowlands towards other mountains.

This morning, wanting to go somewhere I’d not been recently, I headed to the town of Yautepec, a few miles south of here. It nestles in those hazy blue southern hills I mentioned above, with three or four lines of mountainous slopes marching off in the distance beyond it.

Looking for a long-lost restaurant, I began climbing a street running up a hillside, and kept going as a view to the east opened up. Between my village’s mountains and the hills of Yautepec, there’s a flat area that runs for a considerable distance eastwards, and sometimes you can see the volcano in that direction. And today, the top 5,000 ft. of the active Popocatepetl and its extinct neighbour, Ixtaccihautl, were both snow-covered, while the air was as clear as it can get in the 21st Century. Coming to the summit of the hillside street, I had an unobstructed view of both these mountains over someone’s roof, and spent twenty minutes absorbing the beauty of the vista, while lamenting that I didn’t have anything with me to take a photo.

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This range of hills, south of my village and closer to the town of Tepoztlan, have their own air of mystery.  There are trails up there, but you need a guide to find them.

The full range they form is around twenty miles long, and I don’t think I’d ever seen the pair as clearly as this before. I’ve been to their foot, at Amecameca, which is still, I believe, a starting point for people climbing Ixtaccihuatl. Popocatepetl, of course, is off limits to climbers, since even if some people don’t fear scorching hot ash descending on them, the rescue teams don’t want to risk getting killed themselves, recovering asphyxiated bodies.

Eventually, I came back down the street, and took the bus back home. Coming up from the plain, I admired the smaller mountains directly ahead of me. They looked suitably steep, green and dramatic, and very attractive, more so than up close – a perspective I know well, since I live amid them. Eventually the bus, which was old, lumbered and shuddered up the road into this scenery, and the drama faded away. Once again, I was in simple rising ground, slopes punctuated by trees and rocky outcroppings … but not ‘mountains.’

Illusion gone.

I’m glad Popocatepetl is off-limits, and I can never go on it. That means it will retain its mystique. It will stay a mountain.

Rock of Ages

January 15, 2020

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Today’s topic.

I’ve been reading alarmed reports recently about repeated eruptions from Popocatepetl, with some people interpreting them as signs of an imminent seismic apocalypse. But in reality, Don Goyo, Mexico’s most famous volcano, lets off steam and a bunch of ash the same way that Toronto gets snow in winter: regularly and frequently, if slightly unpredictably.

It’s really neat to see a plume of smoke and ash rising from the cone, at least from the safe distance of 25 miles or so that lies between my village and the summit. The volcano is most beautiful after rain, however, which tends to fall at those heights as snow, and coats its enormous bulk in white.

Once, in unimaginably ancient times, this village was covered by seawater. There were coral reefs where there are now rocky hillsides, and seaweed where there are now jutting promontories and small peaks.

I guessed this to be the case when I first came here, since there were so many strata visible in the rockfaces. Volcanic activity here has come and gone over millions of years, changing the topography. At intervals, more sedimentary rocks have been laid down between the periods of volcanism.

Some seven or eight years ago, I was walking on a hillside trail when I spotted a large, patterned rock, just as I was close to finishing the house I was building. It was a chunk of fossilised coral, knocked out of a rockface by some unnoticed tremor, that with the rains of many years had eventually arrived where I was standing looking at it. It was a perfect ornament to go beside my outside stairs.

Years ago, when my kids were small, I would take them to a stream in Erin Mills, the part of Mississauga in Ontario where we lived, to find fossils of seashells. They had washed out from soft, sedimentary rock upstream, and they made neat talking-points on a bookshelf. I think, though, I was more interested in them than my kids, who just saw greyish-green stones with streaks on them, while I saw very ancient history. Anyway, for me finding the coral was an extension of that old pastime.

Now, getting the coral home wasn’t the same as fetching back a clamshell fossil that fit in my hand. This thing weighed 30 lb, and I had to lug it half a mile home. But, I felt, in doing this I was earning the ownership of it. And I’ve never seen a specimen as large or fine here since.

A couple of years passed, and I came back to Toronto to earn more money for my retirement. One time, I asked Ofelia, the woman who rented my house what had happened to my fossil, but she had no idea. I guessed it had been discarded as just another lump of rock.

More time passed, and I returned here. Ofelia had died, and someone else had taken it. He didn’t know about any fossil, either. But then one day, soon after I’d come back, there was a discussion about the security of the corral where our dogs spend their daytime hours.

“Well, just use the big rock to hold the gate shut,” said my friend Lucero.

“Which rock?” I asked, not thinking clearly, so she showed me.

It had been used for this purpose for some months, and much of the coral pattern had been worn away. What had been living creatures millions of years ago, and had taken many more to impress itself as a fossil in limestone, was largely erased for ever.

There was, obviously, a lesson in the philosophical concept of impermanence here. There was also an opportunity for me to extract some emotional leverage for the damage done to something irreplaceable. But I knew there must be more pieces of such petrified coral in existence, and this specimen was not unique. So, I opted for half-baked Buddhism, while privately lamenting the ancient pattern’s erasure. And since it was too late to prevent the harm, and it was – after all – a rock, I let the topic go.

But I do look at the rock from time to time, and gaze at the coral pattern still etched along the un-abraded edges. It’s a simple reminder of how easily the earth can display its immense age when it isn’t covered by concrete or asphalt.

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Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl seen from a hillside above the village. Once, the ocean covered this place.

In such a mood, I took the photo at the top on our patio one afternoon a couple of weeks ago. I stepped back, admiring my worn find. I was soon joined by Punky, one of the three surviving dogs here. Examining the object of my attention, he commenced his own palaeontological enquiries, sniffing it from all possible angles. Did he, perhaps, detect some faint hint of saltwater impressed into the rock aeons ago? Or even grasp, from a lingering aroma of compressed lime and clay, how it had lain within the rock of the hillsides of so long?

I’ve no idea. For he then did what any sensible dog would do faced with the presence of immense history, and lifted his hind leg, anointing the damaged fossil with a pungent scent of his own.

I’m very fond of Punky, but I fear he just doesn’t have that much scientific curiosity.

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Punky rolling around on the patio.