The Puddle of Genius

Tree size cholla cactus in El Charco del Ingenio

Tree size cholla cactus in El Charco del Ingenio

A mile or so east of the Parroquia in old San Miguelle de Allende—and up hill all the way—is a high desert botanical garden with the unlikely name of “The Puddle of Genius.” It sounds better in Spanish—El Charco del Ingenio—but then almost everything sounds better in Spanish. The garden / ecological park takes its name from a small pool of water at the bottom of the canyon that had spiritual relevance to the indigenous people.

A beautiful location with a mystical provenance and a funny name—this is exactly the kind of Magic Realism detail I like to put include in my fiction (Owl Dreams, Southwest Gothic Tales, Messages).

Back in the old days, when times were tough holy men would head for The Puddle of Genius and wait for the spirits to send them a brilliant solution to their current problems. People did

Cactus in El Charco Del Ingenio

Cactus in El Charco Del Ingenio

that sort of thing all the time before the Internet. They’d sit in the shade, clear their minds and wait for a supernatural connection. It worked for the indigenous holy men about as well as it worked for the Dalai Lama—no math problems or romantic issues please—and if things didn’t turn out well the thinker could always blame it on a higher power.

Puddle magic blessed me with an epiphany as soon as I reached the garden: “Next time I’ll take a cab.”

That’s the spiritual recommendation if you want to visit El Charco del Ingenio. Taxi’s are easy to find in San Miguel. The fairs are zoned and drivers will take out of shape Americans to from the center of town to the garden for fifty pesos (A little less than four U.S.D.). You’ll feel a lot

Old Steel Aqueduct in El Charco Del Ingenio

Old Steel Aqueduct in El Charco Del Ingenio

better about the 250 acres of trails if you don’t start off out of breath and it will please the supernatural park rangers.

The botanical garden has historical features as well as native desert plants. Pre-Columbian tools and ceramics have been found in caves scattered through the valley. You’ll see ruins of Spanish colonial buildings overgrown with vegetation. The walls and sluice of an old mill remain along with the

View of San Miguel on the walk back from El Charco Del Ingenio.

View of San Miguel on the walk back from El Charco Del Ingenio.

foundations of a Hacienda, a functional 19th century dam, and the infrastructure for an aqueduct built in the first half of the 20th century.

With all of its antiquities, you’d think the park has been around for a very long time, but it was actually inaugurated in 1991. Like everything in Mexico, the opening was coordinated with an astronomical event—a total eclipse of the sun.

Celebrations of equinoxes and solstices are common at El Charco del Ingenio. They are timed to coincide with similar festivals held in the old part of San Miguel.

My wife (a master gardener and major plant enthusiast) timed our visit after the first serious rain in the month of March, a few days after the equinox. The Jacaranda trees and the cactus were in bloom, the views from the park were gorgeous, and the spirits were free with good advice.

Skeletons, Skulls and Mexican Festivals

Catrina Images on china. Market in San Miguel de Allende

Catrina Images on china.
Market in San Miguel de Allende

 

Skeleton in Mexican Folk Art. San Miguel de Allende

Skeleton in Mexican Folk Art. San Miguel de Allende

People in San Miguel de Allende love skeletons. Effigies wear skull earrings. Indigenous dancers have skull headbands and knee guards. Children’s faces are painted to make them look like stand-ins for Walking Dead. Every parade features a dancing skeleton or two.

The Mexican infatuation with human bones isn’t limited to parades. Skeletons star in Mexican cartoons. You’ll find plates and platters in any public market featuring skulls and skeletons. There are folk art sculptures of skeletons riding bicycles, cooking, repairing shoes and doing just about any mundane thing you can think of.  An Iconic figure of a well-dressed female skeleton named Catrina is seen all over Mexico. She was originally a sort of high-art political cartoon satirizing the life of the upper classes during the reign of Porfirio Diaz.

Everyone has heard of the Day of the Dead. It was co-opted into a Catholic-like holiday by the Spanish when they conquered the indigenous people 500 years ago. They managed to convince the local tribes to move the celebration from the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar (approximately the month of August) to November first and second to

Skeletons in Folk Art. San Miguel de Allende

Skeletons in Folk Art. San Miguel de Allende

correspond with All Saints Day and All Souls Day. They also whittled the festival down from one month to only two days.

The Day of the Dead is a lot more like Halloween than Easter, and in case anyone’s forgotten, Halloween is not a Christian holiday. On day one of the celebration, people don wooden skull masks (Calacas) and dance in honor of relatives who have passed away. The wooden skulls are also placed on altars dedicated to deceased family members. If you have a

Effige with Skull Earrings. San Miguel de Allende

Effige with Skull Earrings. San Miguel de Allende

sweet tooth, you can eat a sugar skull with the name of a dead friend or relative printed on the forehead.

On the second day they take the party to cemetery where the festivities continues into the night. Then the living go home and the dead go back to being dead until the whole thing starts again next year.

Back when the Aztecs were running things in Mexico, the festival was presided over by Mictecacihuatl, “Lady of the Dead.” Skeletons were part of practically every celebration (as they are today in Mexico). Skulls were considered to be good luck and the gods were often portrayed as skeleton men. Quetzalcoatl (a star of the Aztec holy pantheon who saved the world by feeding his heart to the sun) was said to have stolen

Child in Festival Make Up. San Miguel de Allende

Child in Festival Make Up. San Miguel de Allende

bones from the god of the underworld and used them to create the different races of mankind. Things might have worked out better if he’d stopped before he made the Europeans.

Indigenous legends are so much more interesting than the spooky stories that thrilled and frightened us when we were young. That’s why everything I write has a little bit of indigenous magic woven into it.  Owl Dreams has a modern day Choctaw witch who changes identities instead of changing into animals. Southwest Gothic Tales includes a story about a modern day version of a Navajo skinwalker, and two more novels under contract with Pen-L Publishing, that deal with psychotropic drugs, secret societies and curses that might be magic or practical applications of psychology.

So far I haven’t worked skeletons into the mix, but who knows. If I spend enough time in Mexico I might give it a try.