Up on raw mountain flanks scrawny trees burst into bud and leaf as if these dry season days possessed unperceivable scorching magic.
The skies of Mexico during the month of May are shaded with eddies of smoke and dust as campesinos burn off thousands of mountainside milpas preparing them for planting.
Though unseasonable stuttering rains have rinsed the infinite blue vault overhead, smoke rises day and night where last year’s mountain corn fields are being cleared of brush. There, farmers gingerly repair stone fences, hooting at nests of scorpions and black widows that favor walls for shade and a hint of lingering dampness.
For weeks late dry-season winds have raked the slanting mountain fields as dust devils swirled up out of dropping barrancas and the sun turned the air hard as machete iron.
But those winds are full of the devices of spring. The hollow, rising saw of rain-callers (cicadas), the dark earth-bound clouds that build suddenly and disappear as fast. The month plainly marks the moments just before June’s towering, rushing sky islands, fat with moisture, appear colliding with explosions and slashes of light.
The hot spring that occurs here below the Tropic of Cancer exerts a heavy power. Menfolk with solid year-round employment often walk away from jobs as gardeners and masons to disappear into the beckoning cerro this time of year. Pulled by what has been called “milpa mystique” — a combination of tradition, family custom, ancient cultural reflex and an unyielding sense of the land — they go up there to work a piece of rockbound, slanting field, firing brush in lemon yellow afternoons of curling heat, working long days of back-cracking labor, clearing tracts that drop through arroyos and climb rearing ledges.
In the cities this is a time of nervous parties, thin skins, abbreviated brittle emotional resources. In cafes, even the young flinch in the shallow evening breezes and turn to watch every stranger, as if waiting
Yet there is an essential magnificence to the mountainscapes of May. The very skeleton of the country is exposed. The shifting colors have altered distances and places. The wind has opened spaces we’ve missed or never seen before. From the cerrro ledges, the downfalling, sharp-ridged barrancas seem like ancient, heavy-sided beasts resting in eloquent, hazy slumber.
It’s in the dry season that we perceive most clearly the rough bones on which the rainy season will soon build its sumptuous miracles. It’s during the dry season that the tabachin tree and the jacaranda bloom, scattering lavender, sun-yellow, flame-red petals across the roadsides and street corners. Up on raw mountain flanks often unseen osote trees unreasonably burst into bud and leaf as if the scorched air held some unperceivable magic.
Spiny huisache bushes show their black seed pods now, and in the midst of heat and dryness the tepeguaje flourishes, its leaves delicate and moss-green. In the campo, people are picking the long narrow seed pods of the mesquite tree. Though the seeds are hard and tasteless, the pods (looking like shiny green beans) are deliciously sweet when chewed just as they begin to turn red.
May is a month that makes many of us flinch with its marvelous seasonal contradictions. For it is at once the end of the dry season that began in the chill of winter, and a chaffing, seed-shedding time of summer temperatures that reveals the beginning of spring promise.
It is a time much unappreciated by visitors and residents alike. Its high winds and parching temperatures often distract us from the sheer comprehensiveness of nature as it turns both within the land and one’s being — unexpectedly unveiling lavish colors and exposing carefully hidden corners of our personalities.
And of course much of this season’s essential value lies in our sense that the world will soon quickly flourish in green growth. By the campesino’s traditional calendar, the rains will begin in on June 13, El Dia de San Antonio de Padua, and in a single week our world will be covered with green grasses and burgeoning buds again. Resurrection then will be as swift as the scouring winds are now.