Sunday, September 06, 2015

Watermelon Rites

Weather: For the past few weeks, the tropical depressions and storms off México that feed our monsoons have been heading west rather than north; some rain Friday night.

What’s blooming in the area: Hybrid tea roses, bird of paradise, buddleia, silver lace vine, trumpet creeper, rose of Sharon, hollyhock, datura, morning glories, sweet pea, alfalfa, Russian sage, annual four o’clock, bouncing Bess, David and purple garden phlox, red amaranth, cultivated sunflowers, African marigolds, coreopsis, blanket flower, zinnias.

Red and yellow apples visible on trees, pyracantha berries orange, grapes turning purple.

Beyond the walls and fences: Yellow mullein, goat’s head, bindweed, scarlet creeper, green-leaf five-eyes, yellow and white prairie evening primroses, leather leaf globe mallow, green amaranth, pigweed, Hopi tea, native sunflower, plains paper flower, horseweed, wild lettuce, flea bane, gumweed, goldenrod, áñil del muerto, Tahoka daisy, golden hairy asters, side oats and seven week grama grasses.

In my yard: Yellow potentilla, garlic chives, California poppy, lady bells, calamintha, lead wort plant, larkspur, winecup mallow, pink evening primrose, scarlet flax, Maximilian sunflowers, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, chocolate flower, bachelor button, purple and cut-leaf coneflowers, Mönch aster, yellow and reseeded Sensation cosmos.

Sandcherries have all disappeared. Privet berries are bright green and highly visible. Rugosa rose hips are brilliant scarlet; small ones on Woodsi are cranberry red.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragon, marigold, gazania.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums.

Animal sightings: Small birds, geckos, cabbage butterflies, bees, grasshoppers, ants.

Weekly update: Watermelons were so integrated into pueblo life by the time of the 1680 revolt that Popé assured his followers, if they abandoned the mission crops, they would "harvest a great deal of maize, many beans, a great abundance of cotton, calabashes and very large watermelons and cantaloupes."

Santa Clara included the melons in their "ritual formulas as one of the principal crops." Hopi at Shipau’lovi chanted

Corn in blossom
Beans in blossom
Your face on gardens looks.
Watermelon plant, muskmelon plant,
Your face on garden looks.

during the Butterfly dance, according to Elsie Clews Parsons. Alexander Stephen saw the Hopi at Walpi include watermelon seeds with those of cotton, gourd and sweet corn in the "paps of the effigy of the mother Pa’tlülükpñüh" in the Horned Water Serpent dance in 1893.

Parsons said the Hopi cut images of watermelon and corn during the Soyal winter solstice ceremony to bury in an orchard or field. The association remained after bands were Christianized. In the early twentieth century, the Santa Clara cut chunks "into ornamental patterns" to offer on the Day of the Dead in the churchyard.

Watermelon played an equally important role in social rituals that brought groups together. It seems to have functioned like the calumet in the midwest as a sign people were meeting in peace. When Diego de Vargas was negotiating with Ácoma during the Reconquest, they lowered "many watermelons, tortillas, and cooked pumpkin down to me, praising Our Lord for our great success."

At Santa Clara in the early twentieth century, the fruits were "the favorite luxury of the people - given as presents, and produced on festive occasions and for honored guests, especially in winter." Barbara Friere-Marreco said they and apples were provided "when neighbors are invited for Christian prayers."

I talked to someone from Santa Clara last year. He said when he went to one of the western pueblos a few year’s back to return a repaired ritual item, he sent his son into the local grocers to buy a watermelon. Even though he was doing them a favor, he was the one entering their pueblo.

The varieties grown by the Hopi and Santa Clara that were dried for winter use may have been some hybrid inadvertently developed in the pueblos that had the fat and keeping value of the older melons with some of the flavor of the newer ones. Paul Vestal said the Ramah Navajo often planted several varieties in "one small field." The plants are fertilized by bees, and accept pollen from cousins.

Some of the old ways have passed since new seeds were introduced. Alfred Whiting said, many Hopi were dismayed when their watermelons no longer kept until February.

Large watermelons were a Midwestern staple when I was a child. No refrigerator was large enough to hold them. No family could eat a whole one. They were reserved for large gatherings. I remember large metal tubs filled with ice and melons at 4-H camp.

Seedless melons are smaller than those large ovals, and inducive to smaller groups. A family can eat one in a few days, anytime they’re in season.

However, even the small melons produce large plants that ramble over the ground. People with small yards can’t give them space. They rarely appear in vegetable patches in the valley.

Until the listeria outbreak in 2011 that damaged the reputation of Colorado cantaloupes, peddlers would fill pick-up beds and sell Rocky Ford watermelons by the side of the road. I haven’t seem them the past few years.

That same summer, one of the local market farmers had planted melons in early June. On September 10 I could "see some round melons and a few large, oval ones." On September 12, the Centers for Disease Control announced the bacteria infection in Colorado had affected 15 people.

When I passed on the 24th, the field had been abandoned. It lay fallow until this year, when they raised peas there.

Rocky Ford watermelons were stigmatized then, and haven’t yet regained their ceremonial role. A bad season like this, when few local melons matured enough to reach the local farmer’s market, perpetuates the break in tradition.

Friere-Marreco, Barbara, John Peabody Harrington and William Wilfred Robbins. Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.

Parsons, Elsie Clews. Hopi Journal, 1936.

Popé. Quoted by Pedro Naranjo of San Felipe, declaration of 19 December 1682; reprinted in Charles Wilson Hackett, Revolt of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, volume 2, 1942.

Stephen, Alexander. Notebooks, 1882-1894, translated in Parsons.

Vargas, Diego de. Letter to Charles V, 16 May 1693, translated in John L. Kessell, Rick Hendricks, and Meredith Dodge, To the Royal Crown Restored, 1995.

Vestal, Paul A. The Ethnobotany of the Ramah Navaho, 1952.

Whiting, Alfred F. Ethnobotany of the Hopi, 1939.

1. The only watermelon for sale in the local farmer’s market in the past two weeks. The farmer grew it in Velarde. He said he put in a bunch of seeds, but they all shriveled up.

2. His honeydews did a little better.

No comments: