JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Hacienda Komchen de Los Pájaros
just outside Dzemul, Yucatán, MÉXICO

November 14, 2004

THE SETTING AT KOMCHEN
Komchen de Los Pájaros means "Komchen of the Birds," and Komchen in Maya means "deep well." My friend Ana María owns the 800-acre property and manages it as a wildlife reserve. When you enter Komchen signs make clear that animals have right-of-way. If you are given a bungalow in which to stay overnight, a leaflet on the table may bear the portrait of Mahatma Ghandi and one of his sayings: "The cultural level of a nation can be measured by how it treats its animals." That quotation has been translated from English to Spanish, then back to English, so I may not be giving the original wording.

All the hacienda's buildings are constructed of irregularly formed limestone rocks cemented together, stuccoed over, and whitewashed. Roofs are flat with a slight slope so rain will run off, and so sturdy that when you walk on them it feels like solid bedrock.

The main residence has a cluster of smaller buildings next to it. There's an "outside kitchen," a wash-house, a library building and a tool shed. Here and there appear small garden plots and clusters of banana trees or other fruit or ornamental trees. Flowering vines such as Bougainvilleas, passionflowers and morning glories twine all over the place. Several shallow pools are scattered about containing flowering waterlilies, water hyacinths and fish. The entire compound is overtopped by shadetrees far enough apart to admit pleasant afternoon breezes below.

A bit apart from the residence area stand several other low, whitewashed buildings which in the old days served as homes for the hacienda's workers. Usually these buildings' walls bear well-anchored rings for hammocks to be swung from, and typically hooks are provided on ceilings for mosquito nets. At one time tall trees made these homes shady, too, but Hurricane Isidor in the summer of 2002 changed all that.

In fact, now most of the worker dwellings are roofless and some have entire walls knocked down. However, three are in good enough repair to offer to tourists, and are kept ready, beds made and mosquito nets suspended from the ceiling. Still, tourists are rare here, so I stay in one of these buildings, and it is pleasant indeed, even with an airy screened-in porch.

The hacienda has electricity but no phone service, so to connect to the Internet every few days I walk into Dzemul about a mile away and use a small, dark room with a phone, situated exactly across the street from the cathedral. The room's walls are so cluttered with pictures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus on the Cross, and there's so much religious paraphernalia lying around that I suspect the church must use the room as a storehouse. It would be easy enough to ask about this, but I prefer for it to remain a mystery.

When you receive these Newsletters, then, you can visualize me sitting in the dingy little room surrounded by icons, pictures, statues, candles, crosses and such, with the big, decaying, double-towered cathedral exactly across the street, and me staring into an old Mac iBook computer lent to me by Ana María. Raucous Great-tailed Grackles will be screeching and scronking among the Poinciana trees across the street, and children will be laughing and playing right outside my cracked-open, heavy, dark, ancient wooden door.

*****

PARAKEETS THROUGHOUT THE DAY
It's hard to say what you might find most exotic about Komchen, but a good bet is that you'd be thrilled with the big flocks of parakeets that fly over at all hours of the day. They are Olive-throated Parakeets, ARATINGA NANA, once known as Aztec Parakeets. The species is distinguished from others by its olive-brown throat and chest. You can see a small picture of one at www.camacdonald.com/birding/Olive-throatedParakeet(EF).jpg.

Flocks of these birds announce themselves with their noisy, shrieking chatter as up to 30 individuals or more approach flying low over the thornforest. This species likes disturbed habitats such as forest edges, plantations and cornfields, so our hurricane-ravaged thornforest and cluster of buildings is just right for them.

A tight, fast-moving little flock dive-bombs into a tree a bit higher than the rest, suddenly the birds' screeching stops, they sit still like statues, looking around, and then slowly they begin moving. Before long they make a circus of twig-climbing and, more than anything, preening and interacting with one another.

If you ever see how social, how dependent a parakeet or parrot is on its fellow birds in the wild, what enormous pleasure they obviously find just being with their own kind, you'll always feel a bit guilty keeping a solitary bird in a cage.

*****

ROCKS, TARANTULAS AND SCORPIONS
In Mississippi I often regretted not having real rocks around me -- nothing but sand, gravel and loess. Here there's plenty of limestone bedrock. In fact, in most places where I've dug a shovel into the ground, that bedrock has been only about an inch or so below the soil's surface -- and often there was no soil at all, just bare, white rock.

In other words, gardening here is a challenge. This week I've spent a good bit of time wheel-barreling mud left by Hurricane Isidor in one of the ponds, to a garden plot, just so we can have soil there to work with.

One quickly learns to be wary about picking up any rock. When I picked up my first one on Wednesday, a nice, fuzzy tarantula lay beneath it. She'd made herself a fine little nest there so I put the rock back and picked up another one. A scorpion swinging its venomous tail around was beneath it. Beneath the next was a colony of biting ants, but not, thankfully, fire ants, which I haven't run across here yet.

If you pick up enough rocks, eventually you find one that's not someone's roof. A fellow can see more biology here in an hour of trying to pick up a load of rocks than is on display in many biology labs.

*****

CHAYA
One of the pleasures of being here is that gardening can be done year round. Also, here I have some plants to work with that few US gardeners would know about.

For instance, this week I set out some Chaya, which is CNIDOSCOLUS ACONITIFOLIUS ssp ACONITIFOLIUS, a member of the Euphorbia Family. Some English-speakers call it "Tree Spinach," and that's a fair name since the plant grows as a tree-like bush, and the leaves are not only edible but incredibly nutritious. They contain an unusually high level of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron and Vitamins C and A.

Chaya's medicinal uses read like a script from a hard-sell, late-night TV ad -- lowers cholesterol, soothes hemorrhoids, improves blood circulation, and more.

Fred in California found this link so you can see Chaya: http://davesgarden.com/forums/fp.php?pid=423094.

You can read more about it at a university site at www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/proceedings1996/v3-516.html.

*****

IGUANAS
I miss the Green Anoles who always put on a show on and around my trailer in Mississippi. There's nothing like them here, though we do have iguanas. The common species averages about 2.5 feet long and on a typical day you see several. They are dark gray and most often seen sunning atop our abundant, whitewashed stone fences, though often they also show up peering down at you from trees.

They are so large that when you disturb one along the road, all the ground-thumping and weed-shaking certainly catches your attention. One of the turkey hens has a baby and we try to keep them in a pen so the iguanas won't eat the baby.

At dawn and dusk I like to climb atop the hacienda's scattered buildings, sit on the roof and watch birds. Here, like most places, the birds are most active early in the morning and late in the afternoon. You wouldn't believe how much iguana poop has accumulated atop those roofs.

The aggravating thing is that I can't identify the iguanas, and give you their name and a website where you can see them. I don't have the fieldguides needed. It's the same problem with everything else here, except birds. It's a struggle to identify even the most common trees and weeds, simply because in this part of the world good fieldguides don't exist.

But, I do have bird books covering this area, so probably during upcoming Newsletters there'll be a lot more bird stuff than usual.

*****

WALKING WITH RICARDO & MANUEL
I don't have fieldguides, but I do have folks like Ricardo and Manuel. On Wednesday these two young men rode into the hacienda on their bikes, coming on an unannounced visit simply because in this culture people enjoy visiting one another in the way I remember people did in Kentucky back in the 1950s. Ricardo was introduced to me as the person in this area who knows most about our local turtles.

The three of us took a walk. I fine-tuning their understanding of the area's birds while they identified the most common plants along the road. Since they knew only Maya and some Spanish names, often it was hard for me to figure out much from the name I was given.

However, Ana María has a massive publication in which Maya, Spanish and scientific names of medicinal plants are cross referenced. Since nearly all the plants around here are believed to have medicinal uses, I figured that if Ricardo and Manuel could tell me the Maya name of a plant, I could look up its scientific name, and then I'd know what I was seeing. I got the big book and when they'd give me a Maya name I'd sit in the road, open the book on my crossed legs, and look things up.

"Pixoy," Ricardo said pointing to a weed tree looking like a kind of elm. It was GUAZUMA ULMIFOLIA, a member of the Sterculia or Chocolate Family, and its fruit and bark can be used for diarrea.

"Pitaya," they said in unison when we passed a Cereus cactus scrampling along a stone fence. This one time they provided the Spanish name. In Latin it's CEREUS UNDATUS, and I read that a tea can be made of the beautiful, night-blooming flowers, for heart problems.

"Waxim," they agreed to call a tree looking a lot like the US's Albizia, or "Mimosa." It was LEUCAENA GLAUCA, whose leaves can be used for headaches.

"Habin" was a leguminaceous tree with leaves like a US ash tree's. It was PISCIDIA PISCIPULA, whose bark extract helps a woman's abdominal pains during pregnancy.

"Ikban," they made sure to show me, because, they said, if you get this herb's juice in your eyes it'll blind you. When I found out that it was CROTON FLAVENS, a member of the Euphorbia Family, I believed them, for Euphorbias are famous for producing sap that can burn the skin and even blind you.

What a wealth of knowledge there is here. And what bright, curious young men Ricardo and Manuel were. In the US they'd be honor students at a university, but here Ricardo had to quit school to work nights ironing trousers, and Manuel works as a day laborer at a nearby rancho.

*****

MAYA FAMILY NAMES
The Maya people are found in a large part of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Savador and Honduras, and the Maya language embraces many dialects. Some consider some of the Maya dialects full-fledged languages in themselves. Here the local Maya dialect/language is Yucatec. In the homes of older people here Yucatec is still spoken, but most younger people know only a few words of it. My impression is that they regard it as backward to speak Yucatec.

Ricardo's family name is Pat, which is a Maya name. Manuel's is Camelo, which is Spanish. Ricardo suggests that Manuel is a descendent of the Spanish conquerers, despite the fact that Manuel is so bashful that when you ask him a question he looks away, puts his hand over his mouth and whispers the answer.

Most family names in Dzemul are Maya, though all the first names I've heard have been Spanish. When I walk into Dzemul I pass the cemetery, which is one of the prettiest, best-kept Mexican cemetaries I've ever seen. The cemetary is surrounded by a high, whitwashed wall and bodies are placed in closely packed, above-ground crypts. Every space in the cemetery is occupied by mausaleums, statues, crosses, etc. Most structures are white, but many are painted blue or pink, sometimes green. I think the Maya like making their ancestors' resting places as bright and cheerful-looking as possible.

In the cemetary you can see lots of Maya names and get a feeling for what they're like. Here are some I noted during a recent visit: Ku, Hu, Chan, Baas, Pech, Noh, Poot...

*****

STRUTTING TURKEY
We also have horses, cattle, dogs, cats, chickens and turkeys here. Every time I see the big tom turkey it throws me into a fit of philosophizing.

For, that tom just has one hen to lord over, and no real competition, but he really makes that a job for himself. Typically you see the hen wandering about pecking unconcernedly at the ground, basically enjoying life, but right next to her will stand the big tom with his tail spread, his feathers fluffed out so that he looks double his size, his wing feathers scraping the ground, somehow making a deep thumping sound sounding like a big umbrella snapping open, and his featherless head will be just livid with bright blue skin drooping into a bright red, warty waddle. This tom spends so much time strutting and thumping that I think he must get hungry. What a neurotic case he seems to be!

One's first thought on the matter is that it's good to be a human who can rise above genetically programmed innate courting behavior, but then you remember all the things you've done in life approximately analogous to this tom's strutting.

Even worse, you can't help but to recall the last election, during which a majority of US voters clearly found chest-thumping and demagoguing to be the most attractive alternative.

Well, I guess every turkey has its day but, for my part, I continue to dream that we humans will someday outgrow the strutting-turkey way of seeing life.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net