Some Thoughts on Birds and Trees…
more indigenous languages than that of any other state in Mexico, mostly of the Zapotec and Mixtec dialects. Though the Mixtecs conquered the Zapotecs in the 13th century, isolated Zapotec outposts were allowed to thrive due to the damn-near impassable mountain blockades. Louisa and I are dying to get to Teotitlán del Valle, an ancient Zapotec village, and one of the oldest hamlets in all of Mexico.
The Aztec empire overtook the Mixtec and Zapotec mini-kingdoms in the mid-fifteenth century, establishing a fortress in the central valley called Huāxyacac. The name derived from the Nahuatl words huaxin (a type of acacia), and yacalt (peak). The Spanish, when Cortés officially claimed the valley in the name of Spain on November 25, 1521 (again: bloodshed in Oaxaca on my birthday), they renamed the Aztec fortress and, in turn, the state, Oaxaca (the peak of the acacias). The huaxin plant, which the Spanish renamed guaje (gourd), and the English-speaking botanists call leucaena, boasts feathery blue-gray fronds and pods that ripen from green to red. These pods, when green, are rarely eaten outside of Mexico, and the interior seeds are ground, most commonly in Indonesia, for tempeh. Binomial nomenclature originally lent the tree the name L. Glauca, glauca being the Latin word for blue or bluish-gray. (In China, the plant is known as yin hue whan, yin referring to the moony overcast “weatheriness” of the bluish fronds).
Birds are often attracted to plants that share the colors of their
own feathers, believing them to be, in some sort of simmering genetic soup, potential mates. As many swallows (Blue Swallow, Barn Swallow, Bahama Swallow, et. al.) bear the color blue, they are, in Oaxaca, often found flirting with these huaxin » guaje trees. As such, the birds are directly, physically associated with the thing in nature that is the state’s namesake. Swallows are tempted to copulate, if only for a brief instinctive instant, with the sweet blue fronds that gave this region its name. But the connection and perhaps, copulation, goes further. The huaxin tree, delicious to most animals and a source of slow-burning firewood (many cultures call them “the miracle trees”), is also a source of gum, similar to gum arabic. In early medicine, this extracted gum was used not only to soothe skin burns and alleviate intestinal duress, but was often rubbed on inflamed eyelids to deter the progress of blindness-causing irritations. Perhaps these swallows sense not only a potential mate in the huaxin, but a shared history of use (or misuse) as a curative for blindness. As such, the name Oaxaca, the plants that inspired the name, and the swallows who woke us this morning are irrevocably tangled together.
When Juan de Grijalba claimed for Cortés the now-revolting cruise ship port Cozumel just east of here in the Yucatan, the conquered Mayans were still calling it Ah-Cuzamil—directly translated into English as The Swallows. The birds were seen as mystic healers of sorts, their saliva-rich nests, when consumed, were used to treat dysentery. Until