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

January 16, 2005

ARMY ANTS
The other morning I was weeding the lettuce when gradually it dawned on me that over to my right the ground was moving. It was an advancing front of army ants and I didn't have much choice other than to turn the lettuce patch over to them.

Unlike the leafcutter ants I told you about earlier, which can carry away every bit of leaf and flower material in a tree or garden, army ants are carnivorous, not vegetarian, so my lettuce was safe. As the ant-front advanced I watched as worker ants fastidiously searched beneath every lettuce leaf, in every crevice in the ground, and around the corner of every stem. Any small animal that couldn't get away was doomed. I've read that army ants can dismember and devour animals as large as goats, but the largest thing I've ever seen them tear apart was a grasshopper. And you should see the grasshoppers springing from the grass as a wave of ants moves through it.

The site at www.insecta-inspecta.com/ants/army/ says that when army ants rest, or "bivouac," they form tunnel- and chamber-containing nests from nothing but their own bodies. They do this by fastening onto one another with their mandibles (jaws) and claws. The site also says that army ants, though possessing simple eyes, are blind.

The blindness doesn't seem to hinder them at all. In fact, as you witness their amazing degree of organization and cooperation, it's easy to believe that they may have senses, or experience a sophisticated manner of being, we humans can't even imagine. You might be interested in reading about the idea that ant colonies may possess a "collective intelligence" at www.knowledge.co.uk/frontiers/sf066/sf066b07.htm.

The first-mentioned website also claims that army ants work at night. I have often seen them working during the day, as on my lettuce-weeding day. That site is focusing on just one species. A site on New World Army Ants at www.armyants.org/indexfiles/speciesindex.html lists 45 army-ant species in Costa Rica and we probably have that many or more here in Mexico.

Once I spent a summer living next to a family in the Nahuatl-speaking country of eastern San Luis Potosí, in east-central Mexico. That family by no means suffered Alfred Hitchcock moments when army ants invaded their house. In fact, they seemed to rather like it.

First, it meant that they could abandon the day's chores, go sit in the park, and if someone asked them why they were being so lazy in the middle of the day they could just say "ants" and everyone would understand.

Second, army ants do a great job cleaning houses of scorpions.

*****

PAPAYAS FROM A TREE
One of the pleasures of being here is that every now and then we notice that one of our many Papaya trees has a football-size fruit dangling beneath its umbrella-shaped canopy, turning yellow. If we let the fruit hang there too long, birds will eat it, especially the orioles. Therefore, usually we cut it off a couple of days before it reaches its peak of perfection, set it someplace where we can watch it, and then when its really ripe, what a pleasure to slice into it and just eat. You can see papaya fruits on a tree at www.akan.org/akan_cd/ALIAKAN/course/ghanaviews2/PAPAYA.GIF.

In my opinion, a papaya isn't perfectly ripe until its husk begins looking almost disagreeable -- the yellow surface browning here and there, even with some spots of white fungus breaking out. Well, you cut off that part and eat the perfect stuff inside. I say "in my opinion" because I'm always astonished at how many people think that a banana with brown spots is beyond eating. "In my opinion," bananas are at their best as brown spots begin appearing, and purely yellow bananas are unripe and bitter tasting! But the advertising industry has put it into people's heads that bananas need to be yellow, so what can you do? Possibly the same form of lunacy extends into papaya eating, but I don't know.

Papayas please with much more than their mere taste, texture and appearance. Something in them sets the stomach at ease, and makes your guts smile on a hot, sunny afternoon like we're having now.

That shouldn't surprise us, for traditional cooks have known for millennia to wrap their pigs in papaya leaves before baking them, and even our own culture has realized that papayas contain "the natural meat tenderizer" called papain. Papain helps our stomachs digest things.

Here Papaya trees grow all over the place, both the horticultural kind with big, football-shaped fruits, and others whose fruits are spherical and grow no larger than lemons before yellowing; those we just let the orioles have. Well, the orioles take them whether we want them to or not.

Because I like papayas so much I suggested to Ana María that we plant larage numbers of them. Her reply was that planted papayas nearly never come up. The ones we have just grew on their own accord. The thing to do is to eat your papaya, scatter the seeds, and let nature take its course.

My Maya-speaking friend Don Elías tells me that if you put a papaya's seeds in water, the seeds that will produce trees bearing small, round fruits will float to the top, while the seeds producing trees bearing big fruits will sink. That doesn't make any sense at all, but usually Don Elías knows what he's talking about, so I'm remembering the advice.

What a pleasure walking down our lane at dusk, eating papaya and conscientiously spitting my seeds just everywhere!

*****

INDIAN BOTANY
I've made clear how impressed I am with the local people's general knowledge of our plants and animals. That's not to say that they're always right.

For example, when I ask folks here about this matter of some Papaya trees bearing small, roundish fruits and others football-size and -shaped fruits, the common wisdom is that the trees bearing big fruits are male, or "macho," while the small-fruited trees are female, or "hembra." Of course the sex of a tree is determined by what sexual parts its flowers contain, not the size of its fruits. In fact, some Papaya trees produce only male flowers, others only female flowers, and still others bear both flower types. There are about 45 Papaya species and I suspect that that has something to do with the diversity of fruit types.

In my experience, this matter of consistently ascribing "male" and "female" status to similar plants, typically with the "female" having something smaller and/or more graceful than the "male," is a general error committed by all indigenous people with whom I've botanized. Often they recognize "male" and "female" relationships for species in entirely different plant families. If two trees' leaves are vaguely similar and one species has smaller fruits than the other, then there's a good chance that that's the "female" and the other is the "male."

I suppose there's nothing really wrong with believing in this male/female system, other than it causes people to overlook many interesting and important things going on at the flower-anatomy and genetics levels. If a believer ever tries to hybridize or improve stock, having the basic facts wrong will doom the efforts from the beginning.

However, like the matter with yellow bananas, this is yet another belief system so ingrained in backcountry people's minds that long ago I gave up trying to set the record straight. My explanations only bring onto people's faces expressions that clearly say, "This poor guy with his book-knowledge is such a pitiful case... "

*****

93° & BROWN
At 2PM Thursday afternoon the temperature in the shade here was 93° and I thought: "Feels pretty good... "

It felt good particularly remembering how 93° felt in Mississippi. In Mississippi at 93° I'd be wet with sweat and I'd feel tired. I'd try to stay in the shade and move nothing more than my fingers at the computer's keyboard. But, here, at 93° there wasn't a drop of sweat on me. I was doing chores beneath a tropical sun and it felt good just to be moving around.

Of course, the difference is humidity. To me, 93° here feels about like 80° in Mississippi. It's also helpful that by the time it gets that hot here in the afternoon there's nearly always a stiff wind blowing.

The reason humidity here is so low now is that we're well into the dry season. Since I arrived in early November we haven't had more than a few showers seldom lasting over15 seconds. Weatherwise it's like being in the desert. Moreover, as in the desert, when the sun goes down the temperature drops drastically. Sometimes by dawn it's downright chilly -- often in the 60s.

Being without rain for so long, many trees are losing their leaves, while weeds, wildflowers and bushes have turned brown.

From a jet the landscape must look strange -- brown with many small, dark-green spots. The dark-green spots are larger trees with roots reaching the water table only about 15 feet below us -- more or less at sea level. It's strange seeing a field that's completely brown, in the middle of which stands a dark-green tree.

This dry season should last until about May, if it's a normal year. With things already so dry -- with fires already breaking out and burning for days -- by May people here will be on pins and needles waiting for that first wet-season storm.

And I expect that 93° during the rainy season here won't feel much different from 93° in Mississippi.

*****

HUNTING IN THE YUCATAN
Recently I stumbled onto an old copy of Mexico's official hunting calendar, its "Calendario Cinegetico," telling what can be hunted legally in each state, and when.

Here in the state of Yucatán many of the same duck and geese species hunted in the US also are hunted, including the American Coot. There's a hunting season on Komchen's most abundant bird, the White-winged Dove, as well as the Red-billed Pigeon, but I'm told that few people hunt these. There's also a season on the Common Snipe, the Black-throated Bobwhite, Plain Chachalaca, and the Upland Sandpiper.

Here are the mammals that can be legally hunted in the Yucatan: squirrels; rabbits; hares; armadillos; agoutis (click here for picture); pacas (picture); raccoons, opossums, the pig-like Collard Peccary (picture); and the long-snouted, raccoon-like Coati ( picture).

White-tail Deer are present here but don't appear on the list because the government is trying to reestablish them. Our low, weedy thornforest is wonderful habitat for deer, with plenty of browse, but deer are fairly rare here because of poaching. Most afternoons I see men on bicycles with guns across their backs. I'm told that when night comes they'll use flashlights to locate deer and shoot them. Illegal hunting here is so bad that this week in the local paper some ranchers were complaining about so many of their cattle being shot by deer hunters. Everyone knows that hunting laws are not enforced here in the least.

There's also a special legal season for catching "ornamental and song birds" such as Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted and Blue Grosbeaks, Painted Buntings and White-crowned Sparrows. In the Yucatan this catching season is open on 25 songbird species. Most other states have many more on their lists.

Cardinals are not on this list. However, male cardinals are favorite caged birds here. Often I have seen young men on bikes carrying stacks of cages, and the birds in the cages I've seen are always male cardinals, or red rags, which I assume are used for capturing cardinals. Put a red rag in the bushes and soon the male cardinal claiming that territory will come to investigate, and be captured.

*****

NECK SIZE, BELLY SIZE
Arriving here with just a backpack stuffed mostly with a tent, sleeping bag and books, you can imagine that my wardrobe is rather limited. Some of it has begun falling apart.

On Wednesday morning a well-meaning but sharp-clawed dog-paw ripped one of my two pairs of shorts so neatly that I had to buy a new pair in town.

In the back of a dark little store that also sold eggs, candy, pots and pans, the señora who was helping me find what I needed noticed that I was uncertain as to whether a pair I'd chosen might fit. The shorts appearead to be brand-name counterfits so I didn't have much confidence in the size marked on them.

"Even though you won't believe it," the señora said, "hold the shorts by their waistband so that the back and front parts come together snuggly, then wrap the waistband around your neck so that the sides meet at the back of your neck. If it's a comfortable fit for your neck, the shorts will be comfortable to wear. And if that trick doesn't work, there's another one with your arm we can use... "

I did the neck trick and found it a little tight but tolerable. Since shorts in the next larger size weren't available, I bought them.

And they turned out to be a little tight, but tolerable.

What cosmic law of proportion is responsible for this magnificent correlation, and why haven't I heard of it before?

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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