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

December 19, 2004

SCORPION-EATING SNAKE
Monday afternoon a commotion erupted among the chickens and Ana Maria got there just in time to keep a little snake from being hurt too much. The snake was about fifteen inches long with an unusually blunt head, a short, thick tail, and a very pretty color, a kind of rosy-cream. It was the Scorpion-eating Snake, STENORRHINA FREMINVILLEI.

The snake behaved as if it had been handled as a pet every day of its life. I don't think I've ever seen such a peaceful, pleasant snake of this size.

We could identify the snake because Ana Maria had a book about the snakes of Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, and this species, perhaps because it's so pretty and interesting, happened to be described and illustrated.

The snake mainly eats insects, spiders and scorpions. To deal with the dangerous stingers of the latter, the snake has evolved a simple but effective behavior: The moment it captures a scorpion it contracts its body in such as way that its scales overlap, effectively increasing its armament. At the same time, the snake coils its body around the victim so the scorpion can't position its stinger for a jab.

By the time we'd found some scorpions to feed it, it'd escaped, and I can't even find a picture of it on the Internet so I can show you what it looked like. That snake came and went like a chimera leaving no trace, and I suppose that that's befitting such a pretty one.

*****

LEAFCUTTER ANTS
The other night I was sitting at the edge of one of the fishponds when something small and pale showed up moving along the pond's edge. When I got on my hands and knees I saw that the pale thing was a small flower being carried by a somewhat larger, black ant. Moreover, behind this ant and flower came another ant and flower, and behind that another, and another, and another...

I knew we had leafcutter ants here because each night all the new leaves of our Tropical Almond trees were being removed, just the way leafcutter ants do. To save the trees Ana María had erected barriers around each tree's trunk, atop which she positioned rags soaked in used motor-oil.

Leafcutter ants normally work at night and they can defoliate an entire tree the size of a mature apple tree in one attack. An ant goes to a leaf and with its mandibles cuts out a leaf section -- or nips off a flower or other object of appropriate size -- then carries it back to its nest. At the nest the carried- back material is stored in subterranean chambers, where a special kind of fungus is allowed to grow on it. Ultimately the ants eat that fungus. The ants don't eat the material they carry back, just the fungus.

When I worked as a naturalist in a "jungle lodge" in Belize I got to know leafcutter ants very well. I'd take tourists on flashlight-carrying night-walks through the forest, and usually the highlight of each walk was watching the long lines of leafcutter ants carrying their booty home. It was easy to follow the ants to their nests, and sometimes the nest's excavated dirt would occupy a surface area the size of a car.

My main experience with leafcutter ants in Belize was with a leafy crop of collards-like Bok Choy I grew there. With enormous effort I cleared away the weeds, pulled up ridges, sowed, and assiduously watered my Bok Choy until I got a crop pretty enough to appear on a seed-catalogue's cover. But, then, just as the plants were getting large enough to be eaten, one night a tourist came asking what kind of ants those were carrying little green umbrellas from the direction of my garden. The next morning there wasn't a single leaf of Bok Choy remaining.

I'm not really sure how to garden in a world with leafcutter ants. My approach now is just to plant a lot of stuff and hope the ants don't like some of it. They clearly have their favorite foods, and I'm banking on their favorites not including the squash, peppers, tomatoes and herbs I've planted.

You can learn a lot more about leafcutter ants, see pictures and even view a four-minute movie about them at www.blueboard.com/leafcutters/.

*****

YUCATEC SPANISH
Maybe you've had the experience of visiting the English countryside where the country folk seem to be speaking some language other than English. Regional accents and dialects can be close to unintelligible to outsiders, and often that's the way it is here with me. I can be conversing with Ana María, who speaks a very well enunciated, educated Spanish, when a local worker comes by and says something, and often I simply can't understand the local person. The Spanish spoken by most people here is not quite the Spanish taught in language labs.

It goes far beyond having a twang or a strange cadence in the speech. Often entirely different words and thought patterns are used.

To begin with, Mexican Spanish itself is marked with many "Mexicanisms," mainly indigenous Mexican words the language of the invading Spaniards never quite displaced. For example, in most of Mexico a turkey is a guajalote, an Indian word. However, in the Yucatan it's a pavo. Pavo is the standard Spanish word.

One of my favorite Yucatan-Spanish words is the verb used for hanging a hammock. Standard Spanish uses the verb colgar, but Yucatecs use guindar, which is the word Spanish sailors used to use when putting up a sail. Hammocks are important here, so it makes sense that one wouldn't be satisfied with merely hanging one -- you properly suspend it with the care and respect a sailor takes with his sails.

*****

ROUTINES & GYRATING BANANA LEAVES
It's fun reading my Newsletters issued at this season during past years. In them I speak a great deal of my morning campfires, the beauty of morning frost as sunlight slants in from the eastern horizon, and how good my cornbread-centered meals tasted. Here there are no morning campfires, no frosts, and no cornbread. The curious thing is that I feel no particular loss in having abandoned my campfire mornings. It's simply that that was then, and it was good, and this is now, and it's also good.

One of my new routines takes place each afternoon when my morning physical-labor chores are finished and I'm in my little bungalow beginning the afternoon's brain work. Nearly always at that time of day it's hot and sunlight fills the sky with amazing brilliance and clarity, the banana trees outside my door gyrate in the wind flaunting their glorious glossy-greenness against the steadfast blue sky, and a wonderfully fresh breeze streams through my little one-room house, its walls and ceiling all whitewashed and the white mosquito net blousing gracefully in the draft. Then I love positioning myself at the wobbly little wooden table in the house's center and doing my day's drawing and writing.

I do miss Public Radio, its news programs and classical music. But when I'm drawing, on my little shortwave radio I listen to the BBC's news programs, and on those rare occasions when I stumble upon good music filtering through the static from some distant capital, then what a marvel those exquisitely crafted and masterly executed musical phrases are. If you hear good music all the time maybe you forget how nurturing such music is. In a way, it seems that the power of great music manifests itself mainly when all you have of it is intermittent scraps.

During those rare moments when the essence of the music transcends the distortions of my shortwave's too-small speaker and the room fills with sounds that are tinny but nonetheless conveying profound and universal themes, I stand there in my little room while the graceful arcs in the banana trees' big leaves flex and shudder in the wind, and the motmot outside my door calls awk-awk-awk while struggling to keep the wind from tipping him over, and all the day's irrepressible sunlight mingles with a sky-flood of hot, dry wind, and then I don't feel that I've given up anything at all it wasn't time to give up.

*****

THE WINTER SOLSTICE AS SEEN FROM MEXICO
In previous Newsletters at this season I've always made a big deal about the Winter Solstice, which occurs this Tuesday, December 21st. In the Northern Hemisphere the Winter Solstice marks the moment when days stop growing shorter and begin growing longer, and thus the new annual cycle begins. In years past I've especially treasured those moments a few days after the Solstice when I could actually feel the longer days, the unmistakable first sign that spring was really coming.

Here much closer to the Equator where every afternoon abundant sunlight gushes from the sky and the days don't feel particularly short, I've lost my Solstice feeling. Here a different system from spring, summer, fall and winter is in effect; here we have wet seasons and dry seasons. Here if there's "a beginning of the new annual cycle," it's the first big storm of the rainy season. Here the rainy season begins in May or June and lasts until the dry season begins in October or November.

As during the northern spring, when the rainy season returns here the world here will suddenly turn from brown to green, flowers will blossom everywhere and butterflies will issue forth to greet them.

So, as with my routines, I'm not regretting the loss of my Solstice Feeling, for something else has come along to take its place. "That was then, and it was good, and this is now, and it's also good."

It's been like that at each of the many stations in the life I've lived. While I'm embedded in the routines, traditions and inertia of a particular manner of being, I regard any threat to my status quo as unwelcome. But once I'm booted out of that life, or leave it because I want a change, I'm always glad.

In fact, I'm convinced that in every honest manner of being there's always something magical, something glorious to experience -- maybe hermit campfires on frosty mornings or gyrating banana leaves at mid-day -- and always something significant worth looking for and celebrating -- like the Winter Solstice or the first big storm that'll eventually come along and end the current dry season.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

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