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

January 23, 2005

ENCOUNTER WITH A COLLARED ANTEATER
Wednesday morning about half an hour before the sun came up I was jogging down Komchen's gravel road when in the dim light I saw a fox-size darkness coming at me. It was so boldly marked black and white that I assumed it was a skunk, but closer up its very long snout and powerful-looking prehensile tail showed that it was an anteater. It was the Collard Anteater, TAMANDUA TETRADACTYLA, and it was one of the most handsome free-roaming mammals I've ever seen. You can see that for yourself here.

The creature behaved in the vacillating way of an armadillos -- as if it couldn't quite decide whether I was something to be reckoned with or just a tree. It looked and sniffed, and started and stopped, first one direction then another, and all the time I was standing there thinking how like a skunk it smelled. I was surprised by that because anteaters and skunks not only belong to different mammal families, but also entirely different orders. Skunks, along with such different animals as bears, pumas and coyotes, are in the Order Carnivora (meat-eaters), while anteaters, along with armadillos, are in the Order Edentata (without teeth -- though armadillos do have rudimentary ones).

That doesn't mean that my Collard Anteater should have felt particularly vulnerable. In fact, when I returned to my jogging, apparently my movement caused the critter to decide that I might be a threat, and when I looked back at him over my shoulder, I could hardly believe my eyes.

He had reared onto his hind legs, with his thick tail supporting him from behind, and he looked exactly like a very stubby-limbed, bowlegged, grotesquely long-nosed little man at that point in his story when he's saying, "... and that fish was THIS long," showing a length about as great as his outspread arms can manage.

That anteater was not wishing to embrace me as a friend. Rather, he was positioning himself so that if I should approach him he could slash me with his front legs' very sharp, large and powerful claws.

When I told Ana María about my encounter she was very happy, and also remarked that it's good that our dogs are just normal-size ones, since a Collard Anteater is quite capable of defending itself -- of neatly slitting a medium-size dog's belly from one end to the other.

*****

BUZZING IN THE KITCHEN CEIBA
Each morning this week just when it grew light enough to see things, something magical has been happening. Up in the big Ceiba tree (SAY-bah), CEIBA PENTANDRA, near the thatch-roofed kitchen, there's been a deep buzzing. "Deep buzzing" is too anemic a word to describe that sound. It's a buzzing heard more in the chest than the ears. The dogs sit up, cock their heads and look around, their faces asking if they need to start barking.

It's honeybees, thousands of them, and I'm not really sure why their buzzing is so powerful so early. Maybe it's because at dawn the winds haven't begun blowing yet, or maybe it's because this big Ceiba, so amazingly full of silver-dollar-size, pinkish blossoms, promises such abundant nectar and pollen that a hive dreams all night of what's to come at dawn and, like a child on Christmas morning, just can't wait.

If tropical America has a mystical tree, it must be the Ceiba. The ancient Maya conceived of a great Ceiba at the Earth's center connecting the terrestrial world to the spirit-world. Even slash-and-burn farmers often spare Ceibas as they cut all the forest around them. In climates with much more rain than ours, Ceibas grow to enormous sizes, producing broad, spreading crowns. Where soil is mushy the trunks develope flaring buttresses like rocket fins. Every tropical naturalist has a picture of himself or herself standing among a giant Ceiba's butresses. You can read about Ceibas and see some pictures at www.ceiba.org/ceiba.htm.

Because we're deep into the dry season, and Ceibas are one species dropping their leaves when the dry season begins, our Ceibas now look like huge Flowering-Peach trees -- naked limbs loaded with gorgeous pink flowers. And bees are only part of the wildlife visiting them. Lots of beetles and bugs buzz around the flowers, and many kinds of birds come for the nectar or the insects associated with the nectar, depending on the bird species.

Deep in the dry season there's not much blossoming now, so the Ceibas' enormous bouquet-offerings must be life- saving for many, a kind of absolutely-necessary link in the chain of blossomings that throughout the year sustain life. What a gift these Ceibas are to us all.

As early, orangish, dawn sunlight slants in from the east illuminating the giant tree's pink blossoms and the blue sky arches over all, how pretty among the pink-bouquet limbs are the orange and black orioles, and the blue and black jays... And all this buzzing, the buzzing, the deep, meaningful, happy-sounding buzzing...

*****

BEES IN THE TOILET
This week we also had honeybees in the deposit part of a seldom-used toilet behind one of our bungalows. Lino the hired hand first went to see if he could get rid of them, but when he saw that it was a large colony he came back and said we should call a beekeeper in town to come get them.

So one afternoon Dzemul's bee-man, Don Graciliano, and his helper came on a motorbike, to get the bees. I'm used to seeing beekeepers using lots of equipment and wearing fancy veils and suits, so when I realized that these two fellows and all their gear had come on one small motorcycle, I figured we had a couple of amateurs.

They quickly proved that surmise wrong. Without veils or gloves they simply puffed some smoke onto the exposed combs, and went to work. They'd cut a comb loose (waferlike with hexagonal, honey-filled cells, maybe 15 inches across and one inch thick) and either deposit it along with its crust of bees into his wooden hive, or else he'd brush off the bees and put the comb into a container, for later eating. When he worked deeper into the hive and couldn't see well he pulled out some gloves. He had had gloves all along but hadn't bothered with them! Really it was amazing to see these two guys working inside a frantic cloud of bees, not being stung.

When they were finished, Don Graciliano had a healthy new hive of bees and a good bit of honey, and we had some honey, too, with a nice flowery taste.

"See, it's easy," Don Graciliano said as he walked away.

"It's art," I replied, in admiration.

*****

YUCATAN RAINFALL & VEGETATION
I've added a new graph showing rainfall and temperature variations throughout the year in Mérida, our nearest city. It's at www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/ktrees.htm.

The graph clearly shows that it's warm to hot here year round, and that the months November through April are pretty dry, while the rainy season occurs from May through October.

Down the page from the above graph is a vegetation map showing how in the Yucatan Peninsula the forest grows lower and scrubbier as you travel to the northwest, and therefore higher, more lush and diverse as you travel toward the southeast. That's because rainfall decreases toward the northwest. Travel toward the east or the south in the Yucatan and, as a general rule and with a few local exceptions, the forests grow more impressive (except where degraded by humans). This means that most travelers from Eastern North America's Forest Biome would regard the thornforest at Komchen as pretty scrubby looking.

A very large vegetation map of Mexico with the vegetation zones given in Spanish resides at here

*****

HATE, LOVE & HOT MEXICAN AFTERNOONS
Right now I'm reading Graham Greene's novel "The Power and the Glory." It's set in southern Mexico during that period when the Mexican government was trying to rid the country of religion, during the late 1920s. Wanting to review that period, in Ana María's library I found a Spanish-language edition of John W.F. Dulles's "Yesterday in Mexico. A Chronicle of the Revolution, 1919-1936." Page 285, open next to me as I type these words, bears a full-page photo taken in 1927 of Padre Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez standing stiffly against a wall with his arms outspread,, a droopy-eared dog looking on, moments before being shot by a firing squad. It's a chilling picture. Greene's novel captures those days of craziness magnificently.

On hot, windy afternoons these days I'm doing some awfully good reading. Greene's pages are ripe with buzzing flies and black vultures, and when I read his book all around me there are buzzing flies and black vultures. In this shimmering, scorching air, ideas finely crafted into beautiful words detonate like beetles crashing onto tin roofs.

"Hate was just a failure of imagination," Greene says his hunted-down priest-protagonist thought. "When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of he mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate... "

I think the reason that thought resonates so powerfully with me is that I try to wrap own life around it.

"If I can just get people to know nature a little better, maybe they'll stop destroying it... " I remember thinking many years ago. And though long ago I realized that the concept, in view of human nature, is faulty, I've never been able to replace it with a better one in which to root my daily activities.

Polluting, buying too much, not really caring what's happening to our forests and streams... is just a failure of imagination. If I could get people to recognize the beauty in biological evolution, the deeper meanings of blossoms, the fresh promises of each new season -- how would it be possible for people to keep on destroying as they are now?

If you'd like to read about Mexico's anti-religion period of the 1920s, there's an article about it here.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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