Friday, March 27, 2020

Pebble Mosaic Garden Carpets

A sidewalk in the center of Lisbon, Portugal
In the mid 1980's I made my first journey to Europe.  I flew to Madrid, and then took a bus to Lisbon, Portugal to meet up with a friend.  I arrived early and got an affordable, funky room in the attic of an old building on the Largo de São Domingo, which was paved in a grid with cut blocks of white limestone and black basalt.  I had a view of the Praça and could open the window, so I bought an inexpensive bottle of sparkling wine and sat on the sill and gazed out over the square to the Alfama, the old city of the Moors.  Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world, with a history spanning more than 3,000 years.  So there is much hidden beneath the surface.

In the morning I went out for a walk and was astounded by the extraordinary sidewalk pavements.  I've never fully recovered.  Mosaico Português, or calçada portuguesa has been used to express design in outdoor urban paving since the 1,800's.  The patterns are diverse and cover a multitude of styles from Baroque to modern.  It seems that every city block had a different motif and you can tell where you are depending on the designs on the sidewalks.  Here I was in a city you could visit just to see the sidewalks.  This was a rather profound shock to my psyche.  We didn't have sidewalks worth looking at where I grew up.  Pavement can be beautiful!  This is a video I found that uses an acrobatic cyclist to showcase a number of stunning pavements in the city.

The classic wave pattern was originally used to pave areas redeveloped after the tsunami following the Great Earthquake of 1755.  A third of the city's population perished in the earthquake and 70,000 died in Morocco, Spain, and Portugal from the tsunami that followed. The quake occured on All Saints Day when the cathedrals, which all collapsed, were full.  Most of what you see in the city today dates from after the earthquake, which opened the earth 15 feet in places.   There is an in depth article on the event at

 From Lisbon we traveled to the Algarve in the south of Portugal, and then in to Southern Spain and Andalucia.  I took some very academic classes in the landscape history in college and was tantalized by images from lectures on gardens in Spain, Italy, and India that I would later journey to as a form of pilgrimage.  A visit to the Alhambra forever changed the way I would design gardens from then on.

The Patio of Yussef II in the gardens of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Mosaic walkway of the Parador, the Alhambra
Many of these formal designs are remeniscent of carpets.  As I've become more adept at constructing crafted gardens I've also developed an interest in weaving and carpet looming.  Most of the carpets in my home are Persian.

A late 19th Century Persian Carpet in my living room with Arabesques of Grape Vines, I've stared at this for hours
Originally many of these carpets were woven to be laid out in camps of caravans traveling across the desert.  Garden carpets were portable Edens, a flower filled portable oasis surrounded by a protective wall on which you could recline and sleep.  While my first mosaic patio was very organic, based on sub atomic particular forms and waves of energy, my first commission to build a patio was a Persian carpet.

This carpet mosaic is about 11 x 18 feet in size
My portfolio was fairly lean in the beginning but I worked hard and was able to do some fairly nice stone work.  We learned how to work with mortar, laying bricks in a small urban park project when I was in college.  So I developed a technique of setting pebbles in to a bed of wet mortar and then flattening it with a piece of plywood.  Its a fairly low tech but tedious process.  My wavy patio at home was garnering some attention.  I received a Golden Trowel Award from Garden Design Magazine for my small, pebble encrusted garden.  People seemed to like what they saw.  Again, America is mostly paved in asphalt and concrete so the intricacies of pebble mosaic are a baffling concept for the average American.  I notice it when I read the comments when people see photos of my mosaics on social media.  "Can you walk on it?  It must have taken forever.  It must hurt your feet.  Want."

A DNA Molecule mosaic in the parking strip
My new clients were remodeling a large historic home on a busy corner in Northwest Portland.  The garden is quiet small, and most of the windows look right down on to the sidewalk.  So I built mosaics in the heavily trafficked parking strips between the old linden street trees.  Pebble mosaics look great from above.  They had some beautiful woven carpets in their house and a grand staircase with tall leaded glass windows looking down on to the garden.  So I proposed that we build a pebble mosaic carpet for the patio, which would take up the majority of the garden area.  I built a low seat height wall around two sides of the patio area, which is something I have done in many of my gardens projects to provide a place to sit without having furniture.  I've always been interested in the cosmos and myths of creation, so I made the center medallion of the carpet a lotus blossom.  Lotuses are considered a symbol of purity in Eastern religions because the cellular structure of the plant does not allow mud to stick to it.  Water beads up on the surface.  Buddha images are often seated in a lotus blossom, a pure, clean base detached from the Earth.  This central 8 petaled flower would symbolize the Big Bang, the explosion of energy that is believed to have been the birth of our Universe.  Expanding outward are a series of flower like galaxies.  The carpet is surrounded by a border that is a crenalated wall with flowers growing from stylized vines.  So the carpet is essentially a walled garden and metaphor for the Universe.  By setting this intention, the concept provides a basis for contemplation and meditation.

I hired two people to help me, one who sorted pebbles by shape and color and the other who mixed mortar and infilled the patterns I laid out with the field of black that makes up the majority of the mosaic.  I had found a fairly good quality pile of drain rock at a stone yard that I could buy by the cubic yard, and Erin would sort through the pebbles with me until she thought she would lose her mind.  Sorting is tedious work that many of you won't have the tolerance to do if you ever try this.  It took a couple of weeks to lay the drainage pipes and grade and compact the base for the patio, and 3 weeks to form and build the mosaic.  I left permeable gaps between the border and main body of the carpet so that water could nourish two large trees growing by the patio, and make it easier for the large area to drain.  Labrador violets have seeded in to the gaps over time.  The Adirondack chairs in the photo have since gone away.

Garden photographer Alan Mandell photographed the patio, which later appeared in Fine Gardening magazine and on the cover of Landscape Architecture accompanying articles I wrote on building pebble mosaics.  Its shown up on a number of websites and Pinterest since then.

I like creating small gardens, and often develop room like spaces.  Garden carpets are a great way to make that room like space more literal.  But the first one I built was by far the largest.  Most of what I have built since then are more like an area rug.  Portland garden celebrity Lucy Hardiman arranged for me to give a pebble mosaic workshop for the Hardy Plant Society where I built the first of her "Flying Carpets" in a garden parking strip in front of their Victorian Home.  For the record I don't give workshops anymore.  They are exhausting endeavors.

We used cut Indian granite cobbles for the border that came from Lakeview Stone in Seattle, and Mexican Beach Pebbles purchased by the bag.  I hand collected the gold and red pebbles from a beach on the Columbia River as well as the larger accent stones.  The second carpet I built was based on an Anatolian Turkish Tribal design, as was the third.

An Anatolian tribal carpet design I built along with two others in the parking strip of a well known garden in Portland, Oregon
The fourth was more ornate, with a Persian influence somewhat reminiscent of the Birth of the Universe carpet.

I later built another carpet mosaic in the French Aubusson style for Lucy's friend Nancy Goldman at her garden Nancyland, for an article being written for Better Homes and Gardens magazine.  We placed glass doorknobs in the corners ringed with pebbles to make flowers and a cut crystal coaster in the center medallion.

Moss overtakes a carpet mosaic in the parking strip at Nancyland
My friend, landscape architect Mert Hauck Geiger designed a carpet mosaic for clients incorporating terracotta tiles that I built in a sunken space between the house and garage, with a large double lotus medallion surrounded by flowers and a crenalated wall.  It requires a great deal of care to mix materials like this, as the pebbles are organic shapes and the tiles have such straight edges, so a lot of sorting for uniform shapes was required.

The Beacraft Levy patio incorporates tiles in to the design
When I bought the former Crack house next door to my original house I spent 7 years gutting and restoring it from a very dilapadated state.  The garden surrounding my houses are tiny, and I wanted to build a Persian carpet based on a design I had seen, with an Islamic Mihrab, or altar that is oriented towards Mecca for prayer in front of the house.  Inside the niche frame are two Cypress trees representing longevity, and a Tree of Life centered between them.

Persian Sarouk Carpet with Cypress Trees and a Tree of Life
It took me 4 years to collect the pebbles I needed to build this mosaic, which is about 4x6 feet in size.  I use pebbles collected from the wild in my garden rather than sorting from piles in stone yards.  I think wild collected stone is more magical as the memory of the places I gathered them are attached to them.

Because the carpet design is directional it is viewed from the entry walk.  A sandstone carving of the Sarnath Buddha I brought back from Bubaneshwar, Orissa, in India sits at the end of the carpet, maximizing the visual potential of this tiny garden space.

The Sarnath Buddha holds his hands in the teaching mudras, with the Wheel of Law behind his head and his diciples at his feet.  
My next carpet project was a small entry mat at the front of a gate as a trade for steel work that a friend did around my garden.  I was using a lot of hand sorted stones picked from an assortment of colored pebbles called Montana Rainbow Mix.  Red is the predominant color, but there are also gold, green, purple, and white pebbles in smaller quantities.  I used red for the main body of the carpet, and Indonesian turquoise pebbles purchased by the bag, along with Mexican Beach pebbles and some round flat beach stones I collected from the wild.  There is a central lotus medallion and spiraling arabesques, and a simple crenalated border wall.  It makes an eye catching threshold to the garden behind the gate, which has paths made of stepping stones with a complimentary design.

Sam's carpet at the entrance to his garden
A garden designer from Portland was working on a project for friends in Los Angeles when she came across the Birth of the Universe carpet while visiting a friend who lived there.  She talked me in to flying to LA to look at the garden remodel where I was asked to built an inset in a poured concrete patio outside the newly remodeled kitchen doors.   I wasn't wild about the patio but I loved the doors and the kitchen, and created what is probably the most precisely executed mosaic I've ever done.  I hand picked the material in Portland and drove them down to LA.  I laid out the design in sand to determine exactly what I needed for the various lines and fields of pebbles in the design, which was inspired by Moroccan style carpets they had in the house.  I cut tiles of Turkish Limestone with a small stone saw to create the star like medallions and used glazed 8 pointed star shaped tiles I bought from the Pratt and Larson Tile Company in Portland.

I then removed the pebbles, keeping them sorted in piles, and reassembled the mosaic, setting it in wet mortar using 1x4 forms to set the sections, maintaining the straight lines in the design.

The finished mosaic is very fine.  It has undulations that translate well to the character of a woven carpet.  Its held up well over the years.  The climate in LA is mild so the tiles haven't popped out as there aren't freezing temperatures.

When my clients who I built the Birth of the Universe carpet decided to build an underground garage for two cars, we adapted the design so that it would have a flat patio roof you could walk on to from the narrow area around the house.  This was technically the most difficult patio I have ever built.  We used cut stone tiles in 4 colors that matched the color scheme on the house.  The clients had traveled to Spain and Argentina and liked the idea of a ballroom floor with Moorish 8 pointed star medallions centered in a field of golden stone tiles from India that have wonderful fossilized patterns in them that are sometimes remenscent of Japanese landscape paintings or fern fronds.  The patio drains perfectly in to two small drain holes on one side.

Laying out cut stone for the patio design 
This was not an easy task, and you often see large puddles on pavements like this because it is hard to get the pitch right so that all the water drains off of the surface.  We had to seal the roof with an elastomeric rubber like sealer so that water wouldn't leak through the concrete pour.  Then we used a latex additive to the mortar mix to give it a stickier bonding quality.  It took an enormous amount of cutting to produce all of the pieces fitting together in this design, and I will never do it again!  It is perhaps the prettiest garage roof I have ever seen though, so perhaps it was worth all the effort, and there are no puddles!

At the entrance to the garage I built an inset mosaic carpet with some similarity to the Birth of the Universe carpet to bring some continuity to the garden.  It is like a mat in front of the nicely crafted garage door and can be seen from the roof terrace when looking over the railing.  There is a lot of foot traffic on this street and people often stop to admire the mosaic.  The stones we used were chosen for their larger thickness so that they would embed well in to the mortar and not pop out when driven on.

Driveway inset carpet mosaic
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Last Summer I was commissioned to build a mosaic carpet at the entrance to an extravagant home in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles.  Again I had to hand sort all of the pebbles in Portland and then transport them down to LA.  I cant say I love the drive, or working in that city.  It was not a fun project, but the house is impressive and I wanted the design to be inspiring for me as well as the clients and their guests, as they entertain a lot.  I worked out a concept based on photos of the architecture of the entrance to the house, which has double doors with square panels on each door.

The entry area and site of a proposed pebble mosaic
I had photographed a carpet in the Museum of Islamic Art in Istanbul , Turkey years ago that is a classic plan view of a Persian Chahar Bagh, or four quartered garden divided by the Four Rivers of Paradise as described in the Bible and the Koran.

A classic Chahar Bagh garden carpet divided by the four rivers of paradise, Museum of Islamic Arts, Istanbul
I love how this carpet depicts the plan view of a paradise garden, with a square pool with a fountain, and fish swimming in stylized rippling water.  The rivers frame four planting beds filled with flowers and abstracted plants and patterns.

I used 1x4 inch boards to form the areas, and constructed the border of the carpet, using red pebbles and 8 pointed glazed tile stars.  8 pointed stars are an Islamic motif comprised of two overlapping squares, representing the overlaying of time (the four seasons) and space (the four cardinal directions).

I again used Montana Rainbow Mix pebbles as a source and spent many long tedious hours sitting on the pile at the stone yard, wetting them so that I could see the colors.  I was able to collect enough green to make the rivers and plants.  I used small black Mexican Beach pebbles for the borders.  They come in black and a kind of olivine green, which I used for tree trunks and for the Cypresses.  I had to rent a vehicle to do the 900 mile drive so that I could fly back, and rented an apartment on Airbnb for 8 nights.  Out of town projects are expensive for this reason and these costs need to be taken in to consideration when proposing out of town commissions.

Montana Rainbow pebbles at All About Stone in Portland
Once the border was completed, I set the square pool at the center with a tile mandala that would represent the fountain, where the spring of water would emerge to irrigate the garden.  The star tiles also suggest the night sky reflecting on the surface of the water.

Central Medallion with 8 pointed stars
Then I framed and set the four rivers.  In the Book of Genesis names the rivers as the Pishon, Gihon, Chidekel (The Tigris) and the Phirat (The Euphrates).  There are texts that refer to the Pishon as being the Ganges in India, and Gihon as the Nile in Africa.

The Four Rivers of Paradise in place
Now that the rivers were in place I was able to start working on the four part garden, or Chahar Bagh.    This was the trickiest part as my pebbles were not the most refined and I was under time constraints.  I couldn't start work until the sun had passed over the house and there was a shadow over my work space.  It was in the high 80's and 90's so the time I had to set the pebbles was shortened by the speed with which the mortar would dry.  I had a limited range of colors to work with to make convincing beds of plants.  So the design was in part determined by the quantities of pebbles I had.  I used tiny black Mexican beach pebbles to make small planting beds that alluded to plowed soil with simple stylized flowers in them.  The predominant plants in the garden around this house are tall Italian Cypress trees, and handsome Olive trees, so I opted to make both types of trees in rectangles in the corners.

I finished the work right on schedule, with a sore back and a mess to clean up.  I had to leave the acid wash cleaning to a maintenance contractor as I flew home the next day.

I instructed them to let the mortar cure for two weeks before pouring a diluted mix of one part Muriatic Acid mixed with two parts water, letting it disolve the mortar film that make a greyish cast on the pebbles.  The acid also exposes some sand in the mortar so it isn't a white cement look between the stones.  Adequate protection, long sleeves, chemical proof long gloves, and a respirator are needed.  The fizzling mixture of the acid reacting to the base in the mortar is hosed off with a spray nozzle which further dilutes and neutralizes the acid.

Freshly acid washed mosaic
The lawn was then replaces where it had been damaged.  The final photo is one taken with someone's phone.  I don't think I'll ever be back to see it again.

The completed Four Rivers of Paradise Carpet Mosaic
I'm sure this wont be the last carpet mosaic I'll be building.  They work well as a design element in the right setting in a garden, have the potential for lovely references, and do a nice job of bridging architecture and nature in to a work of art.  And they allude to paradise, which is what gardening is all about for me.

A magnificent Persian carpet with Cypress trees in a lush garden
Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Gardens of Tepoztlán, Mexico

A strangler fig draped over lava stones on the trail leading to the Pyramid
This winter I was making a somewhat epic overland journey from Paris to the Island of Crete in Greece.  Just before the New Year, as I was preparing to celebrate what for me had been a pretty great year in the beautiful city of Nice on the French Riviera, my beloved Mother passed away.  This was very unexpected as she had recently had a hip replacement and I spent a month with her during her recovery.  I had celebrated Thanksgiving with her and my Brother and his Wife a few days before I flew to Paris.  So suddenly, with a very broken heart I had to make my way back to Paris and fly home during one of the busiest travel times of the year.  I make a habit of not being in Oregon during the winter, and it had been more than 3 1/2 decades since the last time I'd done so.

My Mother and I sitting on the "Mother Stone" during the dedication of the Halls Hill Labyrinth, with the full moon mosaic I made on her birthday at our feet.
I moved in to my Mother's house on a small rural estate outside of Eugene and helped prepare for what was a beautiful memorial service.  We have a wonderful family, and I was able to contact many of her dear old friends.  Her granddaughters came for a week and helped me begin the daunting task of going through her things.  She had lived on this farm for 43 years and had managed to accumulate enormous quantities of things.  She did not like to throw things away because of great sentiment, the impact of being born during the depression, and an obsessive compulsion to organize and label everything before storing it away.

A labeled can, full of nested cans I found in the garage.  Shades of Marcel du Champ
Going through the house, the garage, the barn, the garden shed, the chicken house, and the pole shed was an enormous undertaking that revealed a painstaking need to save things.  She kept every letter, every card, every photo, the negatives of the photos, newpaper clippings, and magazine articles relating to anything relative to our lives.  There are dozens of photo albums.  She made detailed albums about my brother's and my childhood, an album for every year in general, meticulously detailed improvements made on the farm, family history going back to the 19th century, and things that she had experienced that nobody knew about.  Going through all of this was like excavating the past in vivid detail, and unless I was going to open a library on the scale of those done for presidents, and had to throw a lot away.  I am a practical person, but much of what I do is based on who my Mother was and the influence she had on me.  I am a very detail oriented person as well.  You have to be when you build pebble mosaics for a living.

One of the meticulously beautiful cone wreaths my Mother made when I was a child

After 6 weeks of reliving every minute aspect of our childhoods and the lives of everyone she knew, I was emotionally exhausted.  I take a lot of photos and one of the main reasons was so I could share what I see with my Mother.  I think of her every time I take a picture.  She wont be seeing them anymore, but I still take them for her.  It makes me cry a lot.  Tears are coming as I write this.

I travel to regain my sanity, one that is challenged by chores of every day life and the chaos of the World that presents itself in the media day after day.  I am not a fan of the current administration running our country.  I deplore Xenophobia, because I am a well traveled Libran and know how good most people in the world are.  There is no supreme race.  America is not number one.  There is no reason to look down upon others based on differences when you see what is really going on in the world first hand.  All of the Muslims I've ever met are gracious, wonderful people.  We are so lucky to border Mexico (and occupy a fair amount of what was once part of Mexico.  Our culture would be greatly lacking without the diverse cultures that come from south of the border.  Building a wall to keep them out is so stupid to me.  Thats where I first learned to travel in foriegn country.  That is where I returned to heal my broken heart after the loss of my Mother.  It was the first of many countries she traveled to as well.  She loved it.

I'm lucky to be self employed and able to go when I need to.  I set my life up this way on purpose.  I work very hard when I work so that I can take time to get away for long periods of time.  So I stayed up late one night and booked a flight to Mexico City.  It would have been too costly and time consuming to return to Europe and resume my journey to Crete.  My two side by side houses in Portland were subletted for the winter until March so it made sense to me to make this trip.

The last time I spent a winter in Mexico was the year before I started my two 6 month stints working at Camp Glenorchy in New Zealand.  Right before I left I met up with a friend who lives in Mexico City who told me about the town of Tepoztlán, a couple of hours away in a mountainous region to the south in the state of Morelos.  It sounded really interesting to me.  It turns out there is a bus directly from the airport that passes through the town so I found a nice looking and very affordable place near the mercado on Airbnb, and a couple of weeks later was on a plane.  It turned out that two good friends had been there for over a week and we would have two days of overlap.

I arrived by taxi from the small bus station outside of town after a beautiful ride through pine and oak forested mountains, obnoxiously seranaded by a dubbed action film they always show on buses.  Mexico City is one of the largest in the world and its amazing that you can be out in such a lovely landscape once you get past the traffic jams of the metropolis.

The dramatic mountain landscape surrounding Tepoztlán
My home for a week was on a narrow cobbled street called Guadalupe Rojas.  Traditional Mexican buildings are walled from the street, with a gate large enough for vehicles to pass through.  I knocked on the large brown painted wooden gates and a sweet woman named Placida opened the door and let me in.  Two friendly standard poodles came to greet me and continued to do so every time I came and went during the week.  Behind the gate lies a veritable paradise.  Hot pink bouganvillea covers the high stone wall by the cobbled stone driveway.

A bouganvillea draped wall in hot pink splendor by the entry drive
The most massive Philodendron I have ever seen screens the garden from the parking courtyard paved with square red bricks.  When there aren't any cars parked on it, it is a lovely courtyard.

A huge Philodendron encloses the parking court from the gardens

Hanging and potted plants surrounding a vine covered tree in the courtyard
The simple cabana I had reserved was right by a lovely oval swimming pool surrounded by Heliconias and Papyrus, with the scent of lemon and lime trees in bloom.  Lush green lawns framed by low walls with rows of large planted pots and clipped hedges are shaded by tall trees of many kinds.  This is the dry season but the dramatic surrounding mountains are covered in exuberant vegetation.  It must be even more respendent in the Summer when the rains come.  I had chosen well to stay here, heaven on Earth.  This place is magical.

Gardens at Guadalupe Rojas
A solar heater on the roof of my vine draped cabana heats the water for my shower and the swimming pool, which was the perfect temperature.  A cup of coffee in the morning has nothing over being able to step out the door in the morning and jump in to a tiled oval of water and then lying on the warm stone coping to dry off while the poodles nap on the lawn.

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I shared the pool with other guests residing in discretely located bungalows tucked away in the gardens but we seemed to time it so there was little overlap.

The garden is a wide terrace on a hillside with views of the mountains framing the valley beyond.  They are of volcanic origin, with layers of successive flows of lava stacked upon each other, which then eroded to make dramatic vertical slopes.

A mountain view from the edge of the garden
I have a critical eye for detail and I found the gardens at Guadalupe Rojas to be beautifully composed.  The lawns are perfectly scaled, and framed with interesting elements.

Low curved lava stone walls frame hedges and beds filled with a wonderful variety of plants

A patio in the center of the garden surrounded by low walls and potted plants
After a nap (my flight was a red eye) my friends came to pick me up and we walked to the nearby market for lunch.  This is one of the best mercados in Mexico, laden with beautiful produce, fresh meats, grains and spices.  A number of open kitchens whirl with activity surrounded by counters and benches filled with hungry customers.  Fresh tortillas are pressed and cooked on large round steel griddles along with flat pounded slices of beef, shredded chicken, cabeza de cabra (goats head) and a variety of vegetables.  I don't eat beef and lean towards vegeterian foods so I opted for a taco de chile relleno and a huarache, a thick oval tortilla heaped with delicious ingredients.  The taco came first and was huge, unlike the small ones I'm used to in the US.  Fresh squeezed mandarine orange juice is a heavenly accompaniment.

Taco de Chile Relleno, the best I've ever had

While I was eating this they prepared my huarache.  Tepoztlán's market is special for its prehispanic ingredients.  Amaranth and Chapulin ( a type of roasted grasshopper), Flor de Calabaza (squash blossoms), Nopales (prickly pear pads), and Cuitlacoche (corn smut, a type of fungus that infects corn cobs) are commonly used and delicious.

My huarache was heaped with lovely squash blossoms, earthy corn smut, and mushrooms, with stringy Queso quesillo and garnished with avocado.  It tasted incredible but was too much to eat so I finished it off for dinner later.

Huarache cooking on the grill

This would be a hugely popular gourmet dish back in the foodie city of Portland where I live.

The beautiful vegetarian Huarache I returned to eat again and again
My favorite food stall in the Tepoztlán market

A menu of various Huaraches at my favorite food stall
Flore de Calabaza, Squash flowers have been cultivated in the region for over 10,000 years
There is another stand called El Cuatecomate that my friends turned me on to that was more modern in decor but ancient in its ingredients.  They prepare a variety of patties prepared with Amaranth, Beets, Cacao, Chiles, Calabaza, Quelite (wild herbs) and a number of other locally grown vegetarian products, heated and served with delicious sauces.

Amazing patties made with Prehispanic ingredients.  I wish I could buy these in Portland
Prehispanic foods prepared at El Cuatecomate
When they dish is served he said in Spanish that he was giving me this food as an offering (una ofrenda).  I'm still feeling emotionally vulnerable and this made me cry.  So beautiful.

Prehispanic patties with sauces, and fresh Jugo de Maracuya (Passionfruit)
Beautiful produce on display in the Mercado
Black Chiles in the Mercado
Mandarinas, Naranjas, Tomates, Tomatillos, Papas, y Sandia
Nopales (Prickly Pear Cactus) and Agapanthus Flowers 
Chicharones are a popular Mexican snack
Cabeza de Cabra is used in soups and tacos
The mercado is located next to the walled garden atrium of the Ex-Convento Dominico de la Natividad, a monastery that was build by Indigenous people conscripted by an order of Dominican priests between  1555 and 1580.  The arched entryway is covered in the most astonishing mural made from millions of seeds from 87 varieties of plants.  Every year in a festival dedicated to the Virgin celebrated on the 7th of September, a new Portada de Semillas is erected.

La Portada de Semillas
 The Portada is so extraordinary that it is deserving of its own essay.  I photographed every part of it in great detail so that I could study the compositions later on.  Scenes of Prehispanic stories and rituals cover the surface, attached to sheets of plywood with raised areas that give it a three dimensional appearance.  The richness of colors and beautiful execution show a mastery of the craft of seed mosaic.  There is much about the lore of the people who ruled the region before the arrival of Cortez that I do not know.  Much research is in store.

La Portada de Semillas on Sunday market day
Hernán Cortéz, the Spanish conquistador who conquered the Aztec empire had the town of Tepoztlán raised when its leaders refused to meet with him.  I have read that the conquistadors sent from Spain to explore and exploit the New World were dangerously uncontrollable psychotic members of aristocratic families.  Sending them away on ships was a way to get them out of the house and plunder the riches of the newly discovered continents of North and South America.  It is a legacy of injustice and slavery, and genocide that still plagues Mexico, Central America, and South America to this day.

A Jaguar warrior costume

I wish I knew the stories so beautifully depicted in these murals
The Domincans were kinder to the indigenous people than the conquerers, but required religious conversion to the Catholic faith and hard labor in exchange for some form of sanctuary from the cruelty of the colonists.

Plumeria and Philodendron in the gardens of the Ex-Convento

Vines growing on a tall lava stone wall that divides the Templo atrium from the garden of the Monastery
Outdoor areas were built to teach large groups of indigenous people the ways of the Catholic Church. It must have been a terrible period in human history, the subjugation of entire cultures in to slavery and European belief systems.  Today the spaces and building have an air of peace about them that masks the brutality of the past.

An outdoor amphitheater for conducting sermons to Indigenous peoples.
In 1994 the complex was granted World Heritage status by UNESCO.

The interiors of the Ex-Convento are beautifully painted
Between the convent and the Templo is a lovely four part courtyard with a central fountain that would have been a source of water for the complex and gardens.

Courtyard in the Ex-Convento

A simple but elegant arcade surrounds the upper floor around the courtyard
A secondary roof was constructed to prevent water damage to the Templo.  Restoration work on the buildings began in 1993.  The 1985 earthquake in Mexico City caused some damage to the structure.

A piñata hangs in an old Ash Tree in the Atrium garden of the Templo

Before the Spanish arrived the region was inhabited by the Nahuatl people and was a ceremonial center believed to be the birthplace of Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl, the powerful feathered serpent  that was worshiped throughout much of Mexico.  You see magnificent representations of this diety on many prehispanic temples.
Quetzalcoatl depicted on a pyramid at Teotihuacan

A modern depiction in a mural in Tepoztlán, with the utility pole painted to blend in.
 One of the most popular activities in Tepoztlán is to climb the steep path to the Pyramid of El Tepozteco, devoted to the God Ometochtli-Tepoztēcatl (try to say that!).  He was credited with creating the popular alcoholic beverage called Pulque, which is made from a type of Agave called Maguey.

A mural by the road leading to the path to the Pyramid of El Tepozteco
The main road past the market drops down towards a small stream called Axitla, which is lined with magnificent Montezuma Cypress trees (Taxodium mucronatum), that are related to the Bald Cypresses found in the swamps of the southeast of the United States.

Montezuma Cypresses growing along Axitla Creek
The largest of these is the famous Arbol de Tule outside of Oaxaca, which has one of the largest trunks of any tree in the world.

The enormous trunk of the Montezuma Cypress at El Tule
After passing through a lush green area crammed full of souvenir stalls and party pubs that sell gross looking Micheladas, the path passes between two large trees with a stone orb supporting a crucifix.  Just another example of Catholisism appropriating a location sacred to native peoples.

The path is made of stone, in some places looking like the original stairway ascending the hill.   Its a steep but beautiful climb with vertical rock formations all around.  We stopped and bought Tamarind Paletas (Popsicles) which seemed to miraculously give us the energy to carry on with renewed energy.

A stone metate once used for grinding corn and seeds built in to the path
Climbing higher, the path passes between stone towers and eventually leads to a terrace on the imposing rock formations with a dramatic view over the valley.  The pyramid is not large but is quite beautiful the way it is situated and has an altar which once had a roof over it.

The Pyramid of El Tepozteco

There are remnants of carvings representing 10 rabbits from a calendar and the name of Mexica ruler named Ahuitzotl with a date corresponding with the Gregorian year of 1509, the year that he died.

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Someone had left two small slabs of stone with jaguars painted on them in offering.

Jaguar offerings on the pyramid

The view of Tepoztlán from the pyramid
 Descending the mountain was much easier.  It seems to be a tradition to celebrate by drinking giant cups of beer mixed with thick tomato salsa, which look totally gross to me.  It seems that Pulque would be far more appropriate but it has been superseded in popularity.

Michelada time
The lava rock that make up the geologic structure of the mountains is the primary building material for walls, buildings, and pavement.  The main streets are paved in flat cut black stone with stone chips detailing the mortar joints.  Walls have a similar construction but sometimes include brick chips to add color.  Other streets are cobbled with rounded river stones.

A stepped altar to the Virgin de Guadalupe and low walls made of lava rock.
The high walls make the streets feel a bit like canyons winding through the hills.  There are delightful discoveries around corners and the social life of Mexicans bring color and liveliness to the otherwise peaceful streets.  Its a pleasure to walk in places embued with so many interesting details and rich local character.

Vine draped walls and Sanseverias
When I was studying landscape architecture at the University of Oregon, one of the underlying principals of design consideration was "a sense of place" or venacular that reveals the character of where you are.  So much of America has become mundane, the strip malls, suburbs made for a transient culture that frequently moves, cookie cutter landscapes with no redeeming character.  Tepoztlán is quite the opposite.  I found this community to be very distinctive, and rooted in its beautiful landscape, culture, and history.

A lava rock paved street winds between high walls and boulders
Hidden behind the walls lining the streets are many beautiful gardens.  Even humble dwellings have exuberant plantings, utilizing recycled barrels and bottles and paint cans for containers.  Some areas are more upscale and were clearly designed by people with training in garden arts.

Buckets and cans used as planters on top of a lava wall utilizing many textures of stones
Plastic buckets overflowing with succulents hang from tree branches

Colorful flowering plants in the Mercado

A magnificent staghorn fern mounted on a tree trunk

There is a strong tradition of mural painting in Mexico.  Tepoztlán is no exception.  Many stuccoed walls are painted with facinating scenes relating to mythology, festivals, and traditions.

A wonderful mixture of colors plays across this painting of a man singing

Political statements are a frequent subject of murals in Mexico

El Bujo

They still have pay phones in Mexico!

 Death is a very real part of Mexican culture.  Vivid depictions of a vibrant life after death keep the memory of the departed very much alive.

Dia de los Muertos

Dia de los Muertos
One evening I was walking down a road with friends, heading to a nice restaurant where we would have a good meal to celebrate before they departed the following day.  I saw the gate to the town cemetery.  Many of you know I have a thing for these "cities of the dead".  Mexico has a special relationship with departed family members.  They have tend to the graves, bring fresh flowers, and have family gatherings.  If you've ever seen the wonderful animated film Coco, you learn about the importance of remembering one's departed loved ones.  Once they are forgotten, they are in a way lost forever.

The crumbling gates to the cemetery, braced with timbers to keep it from collapsing

Graves in the Tepoztlán cemetery
A family was filing in through the gates carrying food and beer and wine, and gathering at the grave of a relative, where they would party late in to the night.  There is some comfort in knowing you'll be remembered after you're gone.  We made the effort to have a beautiful service for my Mother.  We created an altar, and photo collages honoring her life, and I made a bouquet of things collected from her winter garden.  I brought a painting of the headwaters of the Metolius River in Central Oregon that her Mother painted, where I will eventually spread her ashes.  Its a beautiful river that springs from the Earth in a magical way.  She called it God's country.  So much of who I am is who my Mother was.  As the line from the lyrics from a song sung by Tony Bennett goes; "I see your face in every flower."  I'll think of her every time I take a photo, when I plant a plant, and when I throw something away.

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

"I see your face in every flower"

Plastic bottles used as containers for cuttings, my Mom would have liked this

Stone slabs set on boulders provide seating across from a church

A nicely detailed driveway allows for permeability

Aliens at the gate

A carved cantera stone bowl set in to a wall on either side of an entry gate for birds to bathe in

Ficus nitida makes patterns on a white stucco wall

An tarot studio with a Moroccan theme across the street from where I was staying

Wooden bowls, cutting boards and rolling pins in the Mercado

Hanging pots decorate a wall in a parking lot

Adobe bricks with pebbles and brick shards in the mortar joints

Crosses and Montezuma Cypresses

A magnificent Montezuma Cypress along the creek

Virginia Creeper trailing down a multicolored stucco wall

A mural with the names of the formations in the mountains

A mural protesting a proposed golf resort development that was prevented

Tillandsias in the trees

A ramen noodle shop with a pleasant garden dining area
A nun selling votives in the park by the Ex-Convento
I love you Mom