Sunday, June 17, 2018

a great rush of candelilla smacking up against the wall and the flood

One night I was in bed reading an article about a canoe trip. The article was in The New Yorker. I have a subscription to the paper edition of the magazine that in essence was inherited from my father and then my mother. The canoe trip article was written by Nick Paumgarten, and the trip included a senator, a Roosevelt, and a groover. They paddled down the Rio Grande and by floating off here and there Paumgarten paints an interesting kind of boots-on-the-ground, paddle-in-the-water reality in which to set this idea of a border wall that’s been bandied about. Among other things, the article pointed out that the wall, which I personally feel is an incredibly stupid idea, would effectively change the location of the southern border of the United States and has already led to the bulldozing of butterflies. What really caught my eye, though, had nothing to do with the wall but with the Great Wax Rush of a hundred years ago.


Now wait a minute. The Great Wax Rush of a hundred years ago? How in all my great wax research did I miss the great wax rush? Am I that lousy of a researcher? Perhaps. From my wax bible I had made this note on candelilla wax:
... coats entire surface of shrub (N. Mex; SW US) ... odor of beeswax ... burns w/ bright flame ... used to harden other waxes ... raises M.P. of paraffin.
I bet I googled “candelilla wax” and got, as I did recently, a bunch of ads. Ads, of course, make my eyes glaze over. But google “great wax rush” and whoa-ho, there’s Texas Beyond History: The Virtual Museum of Texas’ Cultural History. The section “Wax Camps” offers a series of articles and a plethora of photographs, some of which will be copied here. But go to the website (all links below). It tells a fascinating tale of life on the border with candelilla, aka Euphorbia antisyphilitica, aka Euphorbia cerifera, a plant which grows nearly exclusively in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Photo of candelilla from texasbeyondhistory.net/waxcamps/techniques.html.

Much of the text and many of the photos stem from survey expeditions along the Rio Grande in the 1960s and ’70s. A man named Curtis Tunnell, once a state archaeologist of Texas and executive director of the Texas Historical Commission, was a leader of the expeditions. In 1981 he wrote the report “Wax, Men, and Money.”

Photo from texasbeyondhistory.net/waxcamps/techniques.html.

For a period of time beginning about one hundred years ago, the candelilla wax industry flourished back and forth across the border in the area that is now, on the northern side, Big Bend National Park. One reason for the rush was that the wax fetched a good price during World War I when there was an increased need for wax to waterproof tents and ammunition. After World War II, the industry’s flame flickered and activity has, appropriately, waxed and waned ever since. A steady demand, however, remains.
Wax has always flowed across the Rio Grande either because buyers on this side would pay more than the Banco or because cash was more quickly accessible from Texas buyers. It is illegal under Mexican law to smuggle wax out of Mexico, but not illegal under United States statutes to bring it into this country for marketing if it is declared with customs. Heavily laden burros have brought wax into Texas at various places, including Stillwell’s Crossing, Reagan Canyon, La Linda, Boquillas, San Vicente, Solis, Santa Elena, Lajitas, El Mulato, Presidio, and Candel├íria. It is estimated that as many as 1700 tons of wax have been smuggled across the Texas border in some years.
The process of separating the wax from the plant is simple, yet arduous. Paumgarten neatly sums it up; Texas Beyond History branches out with detailed descriptions of the candelilleros and their camps, their burros, their burlap bags and buckets, their vats and firepits. The camps were primitive.
Devices for marking the passage of time such as radios, calendars, clocks, and watches have not been recorded [in the camps]. Basic tools such as axes, hammers, and saws are apparently replaced by machetes and hammerstones. Lighting devices such as flashlights, candles, lanterns, and lamps have never been seen in the camps; moonlight and a campfire suffice at night.
Photo from texasbeyondhistory.net/waxcamps/techniques.html.

There are descriptions of the U.S. buyers of cerote (raw wax) and refining factories; tales of smugglers and smuggling operations that occurred in the dead of night—
Along the river there were many stories about burro trains of wax smuggled across and sold to representatives of the big floor-wax companies
—a story of pesos sewed into a burlap bag, flung from an airplane; an account of the regulations and controls that developed over time; the raids and the border patrols; and, of course, descriptions of the wild, weedy plant it all stems from. When cultivated, the candelilla produces very little wax. Only in the wild does it produce what we want.
The wax of the candelilla is an epidermal secretion on the stems that helps conserve internal moisture of the plants during severe hot and dry periods. The wax, which forms a scurfy coating on the stems, is much heavier in the dry season of the year and during periods of drought. Since average annual rainfall in the desert where candelilla flourishes ranges from about 4 to 20 inches, drought is not an uncommon condition. The moisture-protecting mechanism of the plant is apparently effective for, as Big Bend writer Virginia Madison has said, “You seldom see a dead candelilla plant.”
One chapter of “Wax Camps” is an update circa the early 2000s, when there is significantly less activity in the borderland wax trade. However, descriptions and photos of the production of the wax—the way the candelilla is harvested and the wax boiled out—remains much the same.
Harvesting native stands of the plant and processing the wax under primitive conditions remains the best and perhaps only method of extracting candelilla wax.
Photo from texasbeyondhistory.net/waxcamps/today.html.

Now, I’ve played and monkeyed with the ending of this post many times, and I might have finished this morning and posted it with a very different ending had I not been without internet service. Last night there was a great amount of rain and flooding in the area that has disrupted life, though so far it has disrupted mine very little. Internet service was restored by noon. But this morning I had trouble even tuning in local radio stations, and when I finally got the NPR station from Marquette, the first story I heard was from the Mexican-U.S. border. It was about the current U.S. policy of busting up families at the border and it made me think, among other things, of so much of the campaign literature I’ve received over the past few years. The glossy images of men touting themselves as “family men” with “strong family values.” I have often wondered what those terms mean and why anyone thinks they might persuade me to vote for them. Family man. Family values. Do you think I am an idiot? Have you ever heard of a woman being described as a family woman? I haven’t. Why not? Sounds odd, doesn’t it. She’s a family woman.

Photo of a candelillero and his burro
from texasbeyondhistory.net/waxcamps/candel.html

Distractions and tangents take me far, but so often they lead right back home. Like the present being linked to history and history leading right up to now. My original ending went something like this: I really couldn’t tell you how many people have either eked out a living or amassed a fortune from the candelilla plant [but I can tell you who lives on which side of the border], nor how many have enjoyed candelilla wax in one product or another, but it seems to me it’s like so many things: it’s there, a part of our lives, whether we know it or not.

I don’t claim it’s a great ending.

Links
A Voyage Along Trump’s Wall (The New Yorker, April 23, 2018)
National Butterfly Center Staff Surprised by Workers with Chainsaws Prepping Trump’s Border Wall (The Texas Observer, August 4, 2017)
Texas Butterfly Preserve Contests Border Wall in Court (Courthouse News Service, December 12, 2017)
National Butterfly Center
My wax bible
Texas Beyond History, Wax Camps, Main Page
Big Bend National Park
Candelilla Institute
Trade Survey … with Special Focus on Candelilla Wax (Paper submitted at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 2009)
A Photojournalist at the Border (NPR, Weekend Edition, June 17, 2018)
Flooding Hits Local Area, (The Daily Mining Gazette, June 17, 2018)

The flower of the candelilla. Photo from euphorbia.de/fotoabc.htm.