THE FLOATING GARDENS OF XOCHIMILCO

MEXICO CITY’S VENICE:

Xochimilco 1

All of Mexico City used to be located on a lake, and the Aztecs built elaborate canals to transport stuff. They conquered the nearby Xochimilcas, a group of people who were renowned for their unique way of growing stuff — on chinampas, or raised lake beds. To this day, flowers are grown in Xochimilco, and it’s become a great place to spend a day on a colorful boat, too. Or as the government of Mexico City puts it, it’s a living history of colors, aromas and sounds.

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With its colorful boats plying a series of canals, wide array of Mexican cuisine to sample, free-flowing tequila and smorgasbord of traditional music, it’s a feast for the eyes and a lot of fun (so long as fellow passengers don’t overindulge and become obnoxious). But it isn’t Xochimilco (note slightly different spelling), any more than New York-New York in Las Vegas is the Big Apple.

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The real Xochimilco — variously translated from the Aztec’s Nahuatl language as “garden of flowers” or “place where flowers grow” — is an outlying borough of Mexico City today; one of the capital’s most cherished Sunday traditions is spending an afternoon floating through the canals on brightly painted, covered wooden pole boats called trajineras, having a long lunch and enjoying mariachis playing on passing barges. But what I find most compelling is something no theme park can replicate: This is the last remnant of the vast system of causeways, canals, manmade islands and floating gardens created out of the vast lake system that once covered today’s Valley of Mexico before it was blotted out by Mexico City’s sprawl. It’s a glimpse into not just pre-Hispanic, but pre-Aztec Mexico.

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The Aztec city-state of Tenochtitlan, founded in 1325 on an island in the now dried-up Lake Texcoco, the largest of five interconnected lakes, became the largest city in pre-Columbian America. Why, you might ask, did the Mexica (pregenitors of the Aztec) choose to base their empire in the middle of a lake, where food and fresh water were scarce? Like many ancient cultures, they took their legends seriously, and one legend sent them on a centuries-long quest in search of an eagle perched on a cactus, a sign that they had reached the place where they were meant to establish their new capital and ceremonial center. The middle of Lake Texcoco just happened to be where they finally encountered said eagle.

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The Aztec’s adaptations were feats of engineering and ingenuity: long causeways to the mainland, with bridges that allowed canoes to pass and could be pulled away to defeat would-be invaders; levees that kept fresh spring water separate from brackish lake waters; miles-long terra cotta aqueducts; a complex system of canals throughout the city; and chinampas to provide land for agriculture. Sometimes called floating gardens, chinampas don’t actually float. They were created by sinking cane frames into the shallow lake bed and filling them with mud, sediment, and decaying vegetation. These fertile little islets, separated by canals for farmers to navigate in canoes, produced prodigious yields of corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, chilies and flowers in the swamps.

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End of an era

Some of the earliest chinampas were built on the south shore of Lake Xochimilco, the southern arm of Lake Texcoco. Though most were abandoned after the Spanish conquistadors destroyed the dams and drained the canals in order to build roads, many of Xochimilco’s fields were spared because they were such an important food source. With Mexico City’s expansion and new farming techniques, few of the tens of thousands of chinampas remain, though some in the residual Lake Xochimilco are still used to grow vegetables and flowers — Xochimilco’s primary source of income— as well as for recreation.

UNESCO, calling Xochimilco “the only reminder of traditional ground occupation in the lagoons of the Mexico City basin before the Spanish conquest,” declared it a World Heritage Site in 1987. The Parque Ecologico de Xochimilco, a great green area with trails, endemic wildlife, wetlands, bird reserves, and aquatic and land activities, was established in 1993. Yet development pressures, natural forces (earthquakes being the most violent) and pollution have accelerated the deterioration of the canals and chinampas that began with the Spanish conquest; some officials and scientists predict the canals and gardens will be gone within a generation.

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GAVIOTAS, COLOMBIA: “A MODEL OF SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT”

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 Las Gaviotas, Colombia
When I think of Colombia, tourism–let alone ecotourism–is not the first thing that comes to my mind. However, a small community in the remote savannas of eastern Colombia is trying to change that. For four decades, the village of Gaviotas has been working to build a community of sustainability and imagination in a country that has scarred by political instability. The people of Gaviotas have planted millions of trees (which helps to regenerate an indigenous rainforest), farm organically, and use wind and solar power. Every family enjoys free housing, community meals, and schooling, and there are no weapons, police, or jails. Too good to be true, right?

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A Gaviotas resident plants trees in a row created by the biodiesel-powered tree planter.

In the early 1980’s Gaviotas began planting a Caribbean pine tree in the otherwise barren savanna of eastern Colombia. Over the years, this forest has expanded to approximately 20,000 acres! The presence of the forest has altered the local climate by generating an additional 10% annual rainfall. The processing of tree resin has become an important economic activity for the community, and when this resin is extracted properly, the trees are not harmed. Gaviotans have discovered that these pines produce twice as much resin as any other resin-tapping forest in the world. Gaviotans produce a very high-grade resin in their zero-waste facility, and even the packaging of their resin has been designed to minimize excess material.

Over the years the pine trees have provided a shady understory for other plants and animals to thrive. Some of the species may be dormant seeds of ancient rainforest that once covered the region. The pines are slowly being crowded out by the regeneration of indigenous species.

 

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Resin harvested from the Caribbean pine plantation is processed and turned into rosin, providing income for the community.

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Increasing biodiversity in the forests of Gaviotas.

Gaviotas has presented harmonious and long term benefits for the environment, its residents, and the people who visit. There are many opportunities for tourists to get hands-on experience working along with locals on projects surrounding forestry, appropriate technology, water, biodiesel, and infrastructure. When I think about the term ecotourism, the town of Gaviotas lives up to the true essence of the meaning. This is also a great example of an ecological handprint, where we are acting to uplift humanity while lowering our environmental impacts.

For more information on how to get involved, visit “Friends of Gaviotas.”

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Lucas, Kansas.

Lucas, Kansas – More Than a Side Trip

Located in the heart of central Kansas’ rugged Post Rock Country, Lucas attracts thousands of curious visitors each year. Most are drawn by the lure of S.P. Dinsmoor’s iconic Garden of Eden, then discover so many other sites of interest that they devote half a day or more to Lucas. In this blog, as lengthy as it is, I haven’t even covered all the sights.

 

GRASSROOTS ART CENTER

Grassroots Art Center ~ Lucas, Kansas

I like to start a Lucas visit at the Grassroots Art Center, a museum dedicated to collecting and preserving the creations of eccentric and talented, yet untrained artists. Some call these works outsider art, some call it trash art or roadside art, art brut, primitive art, raw art, and on and on. Many of these artists just create for the fun of making something unique, while some use their craft for serious social or political commentary.

There is a surprise around each corner at the Grassroots Art Center. Since 1995, Director Rosslyn Schultz and her volunteers have been assembling a wide variety of artworks created from a virtual “garbage dump” of materials/media: nutshells, chewing gum (used of course), computer parts, rocks, barbie dolls, or aluminum can pull-tops.
Shown above is a portion of the Inez Marshall Gallery, carvings from Kansas limestone.
This two-seater car was made entirely of aluminum can pull-tabs by Herman Divers of Topeka, Kansas.
 
Above is a portion of the display of “totem pole art” done by M.T. Liggett of Mullinville, Kansas. Hundreds of these scrap metal art works line his property along US Highway 400 on either side of Mullinville. From personal experience, I can relate that Liggett is every bit the cantankerous old coot his art would lead you to believe. (Liggett is one of the folks featured in a recently released documentary film, “What’s Wrong With Kansas?”)
[Note – The Grassroots Art Center is open during winter months, but with an abbreviated schedule. Be certain to check their schedule before loading the kiddies into the SUV.]
GARDEN OF EDEN
This is where it all started – Lucas’ grassroots art movement, that is. Samuel P. Dinsmoor, a retired school teacher, Civil War veteran, farmer, Free Mason, free-thinker and Populist politician came to Lucas from Ohio. In 1907, at the age of 64, he began constructing his limestone “log cabin” and the first of his 50 ideology-espousing, concrete sculptures which became a profitable attraction even before their completion 23 years later. That is not say it was always popular with neighbors while he lived.
Adam and Eve in the Garden with the serpent and the fruit of knowledge.
The death of Abel.
 

Care to view Mr. Dinsmoor, himself? Macabre as it might seem to some, that is another of the attractions at the Garden of Eden. His mummified remains may be seen through the glass top of his coffin, which rests inside the immense mausoleum he built in the corner of his garden.

FLORENCE DEEBLE’S ROCK GARDEN

As a little girl, Florence Deeble watched with amazement as her neighbor, Mr. Dinsmoor, built those fascinating images. Decades later, as a retired high school teacher, she created her own concrete environment, remembering favorite places from her travels. Many of the rocks in her garden were collected in 50 years of travels.

 

Readers interested in viewing more photos of these rock gardens might wish to check out
Dave Leiker’s excellent images at

GARDEN OF ISIS 

After Florence Deeble’s death, the home and rock garden became the property of the Grassroots Art Center. The house itself remained empty prior to the unexpected arrival of visionary artist Mri-Pilar, who has created one of the most surprising places in the entire state. After covering the walls and ceilings of seven rooms with a silver insulating material, Mri-Pilar began filling those spaces with numerous small pieces assembled from recycled materials of every type, most notably discarded Barbie Dolls and computer mother boards.
[Note – Florence’s Rock Garden and the Garden of Isis are included with admission to the Grassroots Art Center.]
ERIC ABRAHAM’S FLYING PIG STUDIO & GALLERY
Eric Abraham is the World Renowned Professional Professor of Porkelain Proficiency. Most of his work is in porcelain, but if you are thinking Hummel or Lladró or Precious Moments figurines, do a mental control-alt-delete and start again from scratch. My own introduction to his inventive art was this past fall, while leading a group of friends on a tour of Lucas. Mr. Abraham was out of town, but had left a key to the gallery/studio with the folks at the Grassroots Art Center. What fun we had!
Unlike the majority of grassroots artists represented in Lucas, Eric Abraham is a degreed, “classically-trained,” highly-skilled, master artist and craftsman. In common with the “outsider artists” of Lucas, his work can be described as inventive, off-beat, witty, etc. Rather than waste further space in a vain attempt to describe his creations, I’ll post a couple of photos and recommend that you visit the Flying Pig Gallery.
Friends Jolene and Howard in mirror.
AMERICAN FORK ART

There once was an empty lot next to the Ford dealership on the main street. Empty until Mri-Pilar dreamed up the idea of filling it with American Fork Art (yes, fork, not folk art) in the spot, and a new “sub-genre” of outsider art took hold in Lucas. Folks all over town began sticking forks in things. In addition to a fork art gallery, the good folks in town are now constructing a new public restroom in that lot for all the visitors. I can’t wait to see what that will be like!

BRANT’S MEAT MARKET
I now have a new respect for bologna, realizing what it is like to eat the real thing, not the pre-packaged stuff we buy in the super market. Brant’s Meat Market has been in business for 88 years in Lucas. Signature products are the smoked bacon, smoked home-made sausage, and their own Czech-style ring bologna. (We purchased some of the ring bologna, but not nearly enough.) Third generation owner Doug Brant will proudly tell you about the store’s history and products or discuss the advantages of small-town life.
 
THE WORLD’S LARGEST COLLECTION OF THE WORLD’S SMALLEST VERSIONS OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST THINGS
I first viewed this attraction at the Belger Art Center in Kansas City’s Crossroads District, part of a temporary exhibition of “Detour Art.” Or maybe it was on public television’s “Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations.” Anyway, if this mobile collection is not on the road, it can be seen in the Lucas back yard of its creator and curator, Erika Nelson. That just happens to be next door to Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden.  Read more about this traveling roadside attraction and museum at: www.worldslargestthings.com/. While there, take a look at the “chairy” tree, and if you are extra-fortunate you might just catch sight of her demons vehicle.

 

WORLD’S LARGEST TRAVEL SOUVENIR PLATE
Located a the south edge of town on state highway K-18, across the road from Lucas International Airport. It’s made from a 14 foot, decommissioned satellite dish, another Erika Nelson, this one commissioned by the Grassroots Art Center.

 

ALSO IN THE AREA


If you are making a weekend out of your visit, or just want a change of pace from the mind-bending art you’ve seen, here are a couple of ideas. Those who have driven to Lucas from the south (K-232 to K-18), have already been on the Post Rock Scenic Byway, with a rugged beauty which surprises those accustomed to only seeing Kansas from the nearby interstate. Get off the road and visit Wilson Lake, as well.  It has great fishing, camping, water sports, and hiking trails through the rocky hills…. Shop for quality artwork, crafts and Kansas souvenirs at Kansas Originals, at the south end of the Post Rock Scenic Byway, where it intersects with I-70…. Just a few miles further to the south is Wilson, the Czech Capital of Kansas. In spite of the recent tragic fire which destroyed its historic opera house, Wilson has several sites of interest including the hotel where scenes of the movie “Paper Moon” were filmed, and a unique round, native limestone jail building.
WHERE TO STAY

If your trip to Lucas and surrounding attractions includes an over-night stay, there are several lodging options, including several motels in nearby Russell and the highly-rated Stone Cottage Farm along the Post Rock Scenic Byway. Camp sites available at beautiful Lake Wilson State Park.

I can personally recommend the Simple Haven Bed and Breakfast (shown left)  in Wilson, sixteen miles south of Lucas and close to the interstate. The 1886 limestone farmhouse is a charming B&B operated by Joe and Susan Curtiss.  Quaint, but modern and comfy rooms, reasonable prices, and a full home-made breakfast, including Susan’s amazing, baked apple-cinnamon french toast.

LINKS:
Eric Abraham’s Flying Pig Studio & Gallery: www.ericabraham.net
Grassroots Art Center: www.grassrootsart.net
 Post Rock Scenic Byway: www.ksbyways.org
Kansas Originals: www.kansasoriginals.com
Simple Haven B&B: www.simplehavenbandb.com
Stone Cottage Farm B&B: www.stonecottagefarm.com
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