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

December 5, 2004

LOCUSTS
A little after mid-day on Wednesday I was out on the highway painting a large, flat rock with the words "Bed & Breakfast... in a private nature reserve," trying to stir up some business for Komchen. It was about 87┬░, the sun glared intensely on the white-painted rock and I sweated profusely. The stiff afternoon wind was all that kept me going. Still, I was so hot that when the sign I was painting started to flicker, I thought I was having a hypoglycemia attack, which usually starts with things flickering.

But the letters weren't dancing, just the white background. Then I realized that fast-moving, ill- defined, jiggly shadows were animating the white space. I looked up and saw grasshoppers falling from the sky, lots of them. Then I looked higher and a whole black cloud of grasshoppers was moving from east to west, a fast-moving cloud maybe 150 feet thick and a quarter mile wide, a dark river of grasshoppers stretching from horizon to horizon.

I was sitting on a gravelly spot so I lay back and looked straight up. It was like the time on the Kentucky farm back in the 50s or early 60s when early one winter morning huge snowflakes began falling from a single dark cloud above, and sunlight slanted in beneath the cloud absolutely exploding inside the big flakes. But here sunlight detonated in grasshopper wing-flutter, and it was something to see all that brilliant wing-flutter haloing the sun in blue sky.

Well, when there are so many grasshoppers as this, they're called locusts.

I got up to go see what an individual locust looked like. As grasshoppers usually go, these were large ones, about 2.5 inches long, and unusually pretty, the base color being a rich chestnut, darkening to a deep mahogany, boldly striped with yellow, with some to a lot of red. Around the head area they were striped like zebras.

At first I thought there wasn't many on the ground, but then I scanned the weeds with my binoculars and got a sinking feeling in my stomach when I saw that in some places the weed patches showed more locust surface area than plant. I couldn't understand why they weren't eating, but when I took a step closer and they launched into the air like popcorn popping, I realized that they'd not been eating because they were watching me, trying to figure out what I was up to. The insight that the locusts weren't behaving like mindless automatons on an instinctual rampage, but that each of the millions of little beings around me was acutely alert and taking care of its own business gave me a chill.

Now the sky-river of flowing locusts got dark and some parts of the river were darker than others. The sky- river moved like a snake. Sometimes it flowed right overhead, sometimes it shifted to the south or north. When a particularly dark smudge of them passed directly overhead I could hear them, a soft, wet sound a little like an enormous swarm of bees, but without the buzz, like an infinity of softly rustling cellophane.

I've always wondered how giant locust clouds flew so high and so far, because no grasshopper I've ever seen could fly more than a stone's throw away. Now I could see that the locusts around me didn't seem much better at flying than normal grasshoppers. I think I have it figured out that when a grasshopper on the ground flies up and catches the wind, he can fly a long way and be part of a locust cloud, but, if the wind dies on him, he just falls back like a regular grasshopper.

The river of locusts streamed past for between 2.5 and three hours, gradually changing from flowing east to west, to north to south. Some older people I talked to said they'd seen many locust clouds, but never any this big, while others said they'd seen even larger clouds.

As for me, my whole sense of what is possible in nature has been challenged. How can any ecosystem support such huge numbers of hungry grasshoppers? The enormity of what I saw on Wednesday is something my sense of propriety simply cannot digest.

The FAO provides pictures of locust clouds in Africa very similar to what I saw Wednesday, at www.fao.org/NEWS/GLOBAL/LOCUSTS/Outbreakpix04.htm.

The FAO's main page on global locust outbreaks is at www.fao.org/NEWS/GLOBAL/LOCUSTS/Locuhome.htm

*****

CHAPULINES
Some years ago I was in the Oaxaca highlands of southern Mexico when an old Indian woman with a basket of something looking like orange, dried flower petals offered me a sample. I was so sure they were dried flowers, like the hibiscus flowers being sold by a nearby lady, to be used for brewing tea, that I didn't even ask what it was.

It tasted good, salty and with a spicy flavor. I was about to buy a bagful when something stuck between my teeth. I dislodged it and it was a grasshopper leg.

"Chapulines," the old woman smiled, the word meaning grasshoppers in much of Mexico.

I thought about that experience the other day as the cloud of locusts passed overhead hour after hour. So much high-quality, pretty-good-tasting protein moving there, over land where food is often scarce.

For my part, I prefer remaining a vegetarian, but if I had to eat animals in order to be healthy, I'd rather eat insects than something like a cow or a pig. That's because insects have less intelligence and are less complex than higher animals. Cows and pigs can love, have moods, and certainly display their own personalities and idiosyncracies, while insects run pretty much on instinct, like little computers doing what they're programmed to do.

One way of looking at it is that the Creator put a lot more time and effort into evolving higher animals than lower ones like insects, so the person in love with life but who feels he or she must kill or pay others to kill their food for them, should be most satisfied eating simpler life forms. It's the same principle that would cause an art-lover to prefer to burn a child's rough sketch of a dog, rather than Leonardo's Mona Lisa.

*****

ACACIA THORNS AND ANTS
The way that various species of pine dominate forests in much of the Southeast, around here the thornforest is dominated by members of the Bean or Legume Family. Several species look a lot like the "Mimosas," or "Silk Trees," or "Albizias" so common in the US Southeast, and most bear spines or thorns.

One such tree here is a "Bullhorn Acacia." Its thorns are a couple of inches long, much enlarged at the base, and curving outward like bull-horns.

The funny thing is that if you take a Bullhorn Acacia's branch in hand, you'll quickly find your hand swarming with biting ants, even if you're pretty sure that no ants were on that branch when you reached for it.

The deal is that ants bore holes into the thorns and live in them. This is a beautiful case of two species helping one another. The ants help protect the acacia from grazing herbivores, while the acacias provide nice homes for the ants. And the trees provide even more than that: At the top of each leaf petiole special glands secrete a kind of "nectar" the ants love to eat.

A page with very nice photos showing similar thorns, glands and ants can be seen at http://cgee.hamline.edu/see/questions/dp_interliving/dp_inter_antacacia.htm.

*****

MAYA BEES
We have lots of different bees and wasps here but one of the most common and fascinating species is the Maya Bee, genus MELIPONA. This species is much smaller than regular honeybees -- very similar to the dark, ready- to-sting "sweat-bee" appearing during our summers, except that Maya bees don't sting. Also, regular honeybees, which are European in origin, deposit their honey in combs, while Maya Bees produce honey in dark cups of wax, which you might find stuck to a wall or among the cracks of a stone fence. The cups I've seen are egg-shaped and about the size of a small apple, so we're not talking about a lot of honey.

Still, honey from these bees is considered to be better tasting than that from regular honeybees. It's known that for thousands of years tropical American Indians kept Maya bees in logs, gourds, clay pots, and other simple containers. The ancient Maya so honored honey and wine made from honey that they held festivals dedicated to the Honey Good, Ah Mucan Cab.

If you ever walk into a swarm of Maya bees you'll appreciate something noticed by archeologists excavating sites where bees were known to be kept. They found no remains of gloves or hats, since Maya bees don't sting, but they did find ear-plugs, because these little critters do seem attracted to any dark hole...

*****

BLACK IGUANAS
A while back I complained that we don't have good fieldguides here, making it hard for me to identify some of the most common plants and animals. At last, thanks to a book about animals at a nearby Maya ruin, Dzibilchalt├║n, I have a name for the 2.5-ft-long and longer iguanas habitually sunning themselves on our stone fences, rooftops and tree limbs. They are Black Iguanas, CTENOSAURA SIMILIS, and you can see several pictures of them and read more about them at www.wildherps.com/species/C.similis.html.

In other places I've lived with iguanas I never paid much attention to them because basically they just lay around in the sun digesting the miscellaneous stuff they'd eaten. This week they've been on my mind, however, because I've cleaned out the henhouse and begun trying to get our chickens civilized enough to provide us with a few eggs. The problem is that Black Iguanas eat both eggs and chicks. We'll just see how things work out between the iguanas, chickens and me.

We have three dogs here and they just love going after iguanas. A dog may scrape and scratch for half an hour at a crevice or hole where his nose tells him there's an iguana, but I've never seen a dog actually touch one.

What's funny is to see a dog with an iguana safely holed up someplace with just a bit of his tail showing. The thing is, that six inches of iguana tail could as well belong to a foot-long juvenile iguana as to a three-foot long, chicken-eating one. You'd be surprised how philosophical a dog's face becomes as the implications of that reality sink in.

*****

MOTHER-IN-LAW'S TONGUE GALORE
When I was a kid many families kept the knee-high, erect, slender-bladed and sharp-pointed plant called Mother-in-law's Tongue as house plants. That's because the plants overwintered easily and could be counted on to provide a touch of green, even during the heart of winter. Here the plant is more appropriately called "Lengua de Vaca," or "Cow's Tongue." It's SANSEVIERIA TRIFASCIATA, and you can see one at http://davesgarden.com/pdb/go/431/.

Here Mother-in-law's Tongue is regarded as an aggressive weed. "Pull one up and throw it on the ground, and it roots right there," Ana María says.

During much of the walk into town, the road is accompanied by a stone fence as fallen down as it is standing up, and along this fence Mother-in-law's Tongue grows in profusion.

Recently the stone fence was whitewashed. Well, many Mexicans whitewash a fence or a house wall with pretty much the same finesse that one would go into mud wrestling. Whitewash is ejected in the fence's general direction, and a lot of the fence isn't touched at all, while a lot of things near the fence get whitewashed. Moreover, any decent Mexican male walking along a road in a place like ours carries a machete, and weeds need to have swipes made at them every now and then, so the end result is that the Mother-in-law's Tongues along the road into Dzemul are in a real mess, hacked to pieces and splattered with whitewash.

But, you should see how healthy they are otherwise.

Moreover, the whole scene has a certain charm about it, somehow harmonizing with the cemetery with its dense clutter of brightly painted crypts, angels and crosses, and the chattering grackles in the poincianas, and the bright rubbish, the thatch-roofed huts with their own whitewashed adobe walls, the wind-swayed banana trees and the bouncy music on everyone's blaring radios...

These are not my grandmother's Mother-in-law's Tongues snug in their overwintering lard can beneath the living-room's southern window as the fireplace crackles and smokes and condensation forms on the windowpanes. These are the Mexican version of the same thing, and that makes a lot of difference.

****

WASHING CLOTHES
You might guess that we wash things here by hand. It's not as ineffective, time-consuming and unpleasant as you might think.

For one reason, we have special concrete sinks with ribbed bottoms, constructed just for washing clothes. The ribbed bottoms work on exactly the same principle as washboards did in the US a couple of generations ago. I think most of us in the North have simply forgotten how rubbing wet, sudsy clothing over a series of finger-thick ribs removes dirt and stains in a way it would take an awful lot of hand-rubbing and rinsing to accomplish. The process is almost magical. If you have an old washboard lying around you should try it.

Years ago I spent several months in a community of Nahuatle-speaking Indians in central Mexico. Women there washed clothing atop rocks emerging at the river's edge, using the palms of their hands and a certain flick of the wrist I never quite mastered. They considered anyone lucky enough to have a washboard, or maybe even a sink with a ribbed bottom, as high-class folk.

Another reason washing clothing here is easier than you might expect is that Mexican detergent is much more powerful than our Northern brands. That's because water-pollution laws in the US and other developed countries don't allow the high levels of phosphates permitted here. You pour light-blue, powdered Mexican detergent into your moist hand and instantly you feel heat being generated. It's powerful stuff. But of course Mexican rivers are a mess as a consequence. Often smaller rivers are black and smell like sewers, and on larger rivers sometimes you see knee-high piles of suds floating downstream, or maybe the entire river's surface will be white with suds.

So, it's the same old story: Convenience for humans means death and destruction for other living things. My opinion is that the Middle Path would be to wash clothing by rubbing them over ribbed surfaces, but this high-phosphorus detergent has to go, and, most importantly, clothes just don't need to be washed nearly as often as people think they do.

A few stains and a bit of grit around the collar should be honored as nothing less than medals commemorating life-loving, Earth-wise decisions being made at the washing place.

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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