Topsy-turvey few weeks

Many of you are already familiar with our four-legged family, but for those who aren’t, please forgive this excursion into a K9 story – which is the main reason for the delay in posting a new blog.

In April, Mattie, our elderly springer spaniel celebrated her 15thbirthday. Two years ago, just after we returned from Toronto in April 2016, we’d noticed that she was very under the weather. A trip to the vet and one ultra-sound later, she was diagnosed with an intestinal tumour that was developing close to her aorta, and our Canadian vet told us she had between three and six months max.

Taken in our Calgary garden soon after Mattie arrived – in 2003

Outliving his prediction by a good 18 months, and remaining remarkably active for a dog of her advancing years, Mattie suffered a stroke at the beginning of May. So, it was with heavy hearts that we said ‘goodbye’… Twice as it happened over a three-week period when she remained stoic and stubborn, and was obviously not ready to leave. She recovered amazing well from the stroke, with nearly 100% of her faculties intact – a very slight lean of her head being the only visible sign of any incident. However, she then developed a couple of nasty abscesses that our local vet diagnosed as skin cancer – having likely metastasized from an underlying mammary tumour (she’d already had one mastectomy some years ago). Despite remaining chipper and mentally alert, her aging body was starting to fail, so we decided it was time for her final journey.

Always a water dog

It’s good to note that up until the day before she had the stroke, she had been accompanying us to the dog park and playing with her ball – so she remained remarkably fit and had defied her years until the very end.

Jenny, laying in her favourite spot with a perfect view of the world

Hiking

Less than three minutes walk from our front door there are trails up into the Sierra de San Juan Cosalá, with its ridgeline rising to nearly 8,000 feet (our house sits at 5,600 feet). So after two weeks of being a little house-bound caring for Mattie, I deserted Peter to join some neighbours and guys from the local hiking club to hit the trails. The planned hike on this particular morning was an ascent of 2,500 vertical feet to ‘Wow Point’, which is visible from our terrace and where, only a few weeks earlier, there had been a black vulture’s nest with hatchlings. Sadly, on the morning of our hike – while the temperature was blissfully cool – the Point (our lunchtime stop) was wrapped in low cloud that obscured the otherwise spectacular view.

View from our terrace to ‘Wow Point’ (top right-hand corner), and the traverse heading towards the distant peak

Traversing the Sierra ridgeline heading towards our descent into El Limón presents two very different terrains: The sunny side being mostly rock, scrubby tree growth and cacti that can survive seven or eight months of heat and drought, while the shady back side sweeps down through grassy meadows with deciduous trees that reminded me of the aspen-covered foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta.

Six-and-a-half hours and nine kilometres later (the first half of which was the steep ascent to Wow Point), I was concentrating on simply planting one foot in front of the other – but feeling exhilarated at the same time. Surprisingly, I awoke the next morning with no aches and pains, so realized I must be fitter than I thought. Yay!

Rain, beautiful rain…

So, after a few spits and spots during May, barely enough to quench a postage stamp, and pursuant to daily weather forecasts this past couple of weeks assuring us that there was an 80% chance of overnight rain – we were finally awoken in the early hours of yesterday morning to the wet stuff thundering on the roof! Only in Mexico does everyone whoop and holler when the rains arrive and, certainly, the rainbird cicadas that have been trying to sing up a storm for the past month were finally rewarded.

Rain on its way – except this particular downpour stayed over the lake and didn’t reach us

When I say ‘sing up a storm’ – that’s precisely what happens. These highly vocal and quite large bugs – a particular species of cicada, known locally as chicharras – hibernate underground for eight or nine months of the year, finally emerging four to six weeks before the rainy season is due to begin. Their unbelievably loud and rather discordant chorus is believed, according to Mexican legend, to be calling for the rain. So far, no video of a rainbird that illustrates their ‘song’ – although a friend likened it to ‘a Lego-sized air raid siren’ – but have posted one of Peter’s photos below. For context, their bodies measure around two inches, minus their extremely long wings. (No animals were harmed in pursuit of this photograph. Peter trapped one under a glass, then transferred it to a sheet of white paper.)

Cicada or Chicharra – also known in the region as the rainbird against a white background – San Juan Cosala, Jalisco, Mexico

Having lived in an area of temperate rainforest for 10 years, I never thought I’d hear myself say “I’m looking forward to the rainy season”, but it’s an often-heard ref‘rain’ among locals – Mexicans and ex-pats alike. Unlike the Pacific Northwest – it rarely rains here during the day, saving the torrential downpours until the hours of darkness, when the ground is cooler and has time to drink in the much-needed moisture before sunrise.

Back to acting…

Thanks to a very lively local theatre scene, I recently enrolled for a series of workshops with a British Equity actor, who sent scripts one month ahead of time, handed out roles, and expected us to be off-book by the time we attended the first lesson. Yikes! My role is a writer – talk about typecasting – in a Tennessee Williams one-act play called The Lady of Larkspur Lotion. An ‘interesting’ piece that takes place in the poorest part of the French quarter of New Orleans – a place my character claims is a ‘lice-infested brothel’ (which it likely was…), and somewhere with which Williams himself became very familiar.

I confess that until I read the script and Googled him, I had no idea Williams was part Welsh – daft, given that his surname is ranked second on the list of most common Welsh surnames, behind Jones! His birth names was, in fact, Thomas – the Tennessee only being adopted at the age of 28 when he resigned from his job as a sales clerk with a shoe company following a nervous breakdown and started playwriting full time.

Raised by his mother, and with an abusive father who fortunately preferred his job as a travelling salesman to parenting, Williams appears to have been a tormented soul whose writing was based upon personal family agonies. From recent personal experience, I can unequivocally state that his lines are not easy to learn as he’ll tend to use 20 words when five or six would do! But, as acting is a life-long learning process I’m not complaining. In fact, laying on the floor for breathing and vocal exercises is quite liberating.

One final word of local BC interest, Williams was the playwright in residence at UBC in 1980, and their Centennial biography mentions him as being ‘by all accounts, very brilliant and often inebriated’.

A plague of… hummingbirds

Berylline Hummingbird (Amazilia beryllina) – San Juan Cosala, Jalisco, Mexico

Despite the abundance of nectar-bearing flowers, we’re always happy to attract hummingbirds to the terrace with sugar water. However, yesterday morning, after the storm, we were a little later than usual with breakfast, including recharging their feeders – so were subjected to an angry plague of protesting hummers. As soon as we’d rehung the four feeders they were immediately bombarded by these tiny jewels zooming in from all directions. (See video below.) Currently, there are beryline (Peter’s photo above: www.peterllewellyn.com), broad-billed, violet crowned and white-eared hummers, as well as quite a few migrants who are either winter or summer visitors – the latter including the blue- and ruby-throated, sparkling tailed, bumble-bee and magnificent.

 

It’s interesting to see the rufous during the winter months – given that they may have been individuals we fed at our home on Gabriola – which is remarkable given the distance they’ve flown.

Of course, the speed with which they dive in, feed and depart makes it impossible to count – although we’ve tried, unsuccessfully. However, I did grab my iPad and video a few seconds that well illustrate how we get through a gallon of sugar water a day!!!

 

And then there’s ‘Atilla the Hum’ – one hummingbird that appropriates one of the feeders for him- or herself and sees off any that dare invade his/her no-fly zone.

The weird and wonderful… 

Just south of Lake Chapala, in the neighbouring state of Michoacan, sits a monastery where the nuns have formed an unlikely alliance. They are working in collaboration with Chester Zoo in England to save one of the world’s rarest amphibians – Ambystoma dummerilii. Ranked by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as ‘critically endangered’, the Lake Pátzcuaro salamander – known locally as the axoloti (although this is a genetically separate species) – are only found in this one lake, and are best known for their ability to regenerate their own limbs. (iucnredlist.org – Also, Google the Latin name to find a gallery of images of this extremely weird and prehistoric-looking amphibian, as I don’t have one from Peter, yet, to post!)

However, due to the introduction of non-indigenous, exotic fish species to the lake, deforestation that altered the lake’s shoreline, and pollution, their numbers crashed and it was thought that there were fewer than 100 individuals surviving in the wild. The salamanders have also been prized locally for centuries as playing an integral role in the production of traditional cough medicine, so the sisters stepped in to save the species from the brink of extinction.

Today, a European network of zoos, in partnership with the University of Michoacana, are working with the sisters, whose knowledge has resulted in a thriving captive breeding population of salamanders. Currently, researchers are conducting an ongoing assessment of the water quality of the lake and availability of natural food. According to IFL Science (whose website you can visit to read the full story), ‘the sisters will continue to play a vital role in making sure there is a viable genetically diverse population that can eventually be reintroduced’ into the wild.

Truly, hats off to perhaps one of the world’s most unlikely alliances…

7 Replies to “Topsy-turvey few weeks

  1. Hi Jean
    Great letter. So sorry about Mattie. She had a good long life.
    You look like you and Peter are settling in well.
    Have a wonderful summer.
    Cheers
    Joan

    1. Thanks Joan. Yes, we’re thankfully getting back into a routine after the months of renting. Hope you’re keeping fit and well. Can we look forward to seeing you next winter? Jean

  2. This was a great read Jean! So interesting. I am very sorry to hear of Mattie’s passing but you gave her the best possible life.

    Jean

    1. Thanks Jean. As you already know, you’re life is in tatters for a few days after you say ‘goodbye’ – but we’re now returning to normal, thanks to still having Pip and Jenny. Hope all’s well with you and your four-legged family. Jean

  3. Like always great to read Jean and I am still really sorry about Mattie passing away. But also laughed about “Williams – behind Jones”. Guess what my Mom’s name was? Yes, Jones – and Grandpa was Welsh 🙂

    1. Oh my goodness – no idea you came from Welsh ancestry. Of course, I can’t claim that all, other than by marriage. However, I did discover French, Irish and Jewish ancestors when I started to do my family tree. Are you home from Portugal. xx

  4. Jean, your letters are always so interesting!
    I can feel with you about the loss of Mattie, having lost our Mr. Gray not too long ago! But our two new cats, Dexter and Honey, are precious beings,

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