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

January 30, 2005

WASHED-UP SEA-URCHINS
This week Karen from Mississippi visited Komchen. Monday morning she and I rode bikes up to the beach seven miles north of here. On my previous visits I'd been impressed by an almost-spherical "sea shell," mostly purple and covered with rows of low bumps. The bumps, patterns and colors were so geometrically arranged that the shells reminded me of Russian Easter eggs, and I couldn't imagine what kind of creature had produced them.

Karen found such a shell much better preserved than any I'd seen and to my astonishment the low bumps turned out to be the stumps of stiff, sharp spines. On her specimen most of the spines had broken off also, but a few remained attached on one side, so I could see that the stumps were spine bases.

Now we understood that the animal producing the shell was a sea-urchin. I can't find a picture of a sea- urchin shell in the Russian-Easter-egg stage, but a sea urchin very similar to what Karen found can be seen at www.cbv.ns.ca/mchs/diversity/SeaUrchinPage.htm.

If life is ever discovered on Venus or some other world, I'm sure that nothing there will exceed the strangeness and beauty of sea-urchins. The urchin- animal resides inside its shell, and the shell itself is made of a thin layer of the mineral calcite. Like other echinoderms, such as starfish and sand dollars, sea-urchins are such simple animals that they posses no heart, no excretory organs, and no well developed nervous system. One of the amazing things that certain sea-urchin species do is to set themselves on a rock, then over a long period of time gradually they gnaw their way into the rock while burying themselves in the hole they make, until predators see nothing but a hole in a rock with spines sticking from it. Some species have been known to do this on very hard granite.

You can imagine that for sea-urchins sex is a casual matter. Urchins do come in different sexes, but the sex act itself is no more dramatic than issuing sperm and eggs into the water, where fertilization occurs, forming free-swimming larvae. You can read more about sea-urchin life history and see some nice photos at www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/artjul00/urchin1.html.

Karen brought to my attention that on our beach there were no starfish or sand dollars. I haven't any idea why this should be so. There were plenty of other kinds of shells, however, including some large as cantaloupes. In some places medium-size shells were heaped into foot-deep layers on which you could lie and dig with your fingers, constantly making interesting discoveries.

*****

TABEBUIAS FLOWERING
The abundantly flowering Ceibas I told you about last week are now mostly finished flowering. Most flowers simply drop off, making a mess beneath the tree, but enough flowers will set fruit so that in about two months woody fruits 5 or so inches long will split open and release onto the ground amazing quantities of cottony fiber, in which the seeds are embedded.

The bees must miss the Ceibas' flowers, but at least they are not going hungry. Another common tree species has begun flowering just as the ceibas' flowers peter out. The new blossomer is what I call Tabebuia, TABEBUIA PENTAPHYLLA. I say "what I call" because this tree is so famous and widely planted for its pretty flowers that it goes by a host of names -- Pink Poui, Pink Cedar, Pink Trumpet Tree, Roble Blanco, Poirier, Poirier Rouge, Kibra Hacha, and more.

"Pink Trumpet Tree" is an appropriate name because the tree's three-inch-long, pink blossoms are trumpet- shaped. Seeing the tree from a distance a North American immediately thinks of a Flowering Peach in full bloom, or maybe a Redbud. The pinkness is emphasized by the fact that most trees are now in the dry-season mode, bearing no leaves.

Tabebuias are members of the Bignonia Family, in which we also find Catalpas and Trumpet-Creeper vines, which similarly produce sizable, trumpet-shaped flowers.

In Mérida the Tabebuias were blossoming a week or more before ours appeared. I suppose that that's because of the same effect I've written about taking place in and around Natchez in early spring: Towns are warmer, and that causes things to flower earlier.

You can see some Tabebuia blossoms at mgonline.com/pinktab.html.

*****

VAUX'S SWIFTS
Last summer one of my pleasures was watching flocks of Chimney Swifts, with their swallowlike appearance and behavior, and their slender, scythelike wings cavorting in the sky above the Loblolly Field along Sandy Creek, in Mississippi. Chimney Swifts are migratory so by the time I left Natchez in November they had already departed for their overwintering grounds in the upper Amazon basin of Peru in South America.

When I got here I was glad that the skies above Komchen were just as busy with swifts swooping and darting for insects as they'd been all summer in Mississippi.

However, though Komchen's swifts looked almost exactly like Chimney Swifts, which are the only swifts in eastern North America, with my first glance I could see that Komchen's swifts weren't Mississippi's swifts. Komchen's swifts darted and fluttered with more quickness and agility than what I was used to seeing. That's because the swifts we have here are Vaux's Swifts, and Vaux's Swifts, which are 4-1/4 inches long, are smaller than Chimney Swifts, which are 5 inches long, and small birds are simply more agile than big ones.

Chimney Swifts do occur in the Yucatan, but only during spring and fall migration, as they pass between eastern North America and Amazonian Peru. In parts of western North America Vaux's Swifts are common during the summer, but migrate south during the winter. Here Vaux's Swifts are permanent residents, and I'm glad for that.

You can see details about the Vaux's Swift at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i4240id.html.

*****

SOLAR EGGS & FIRST LETTUCE
I regretted having to abandon the big solar reflector in Mississippi, and the wonderful cornbread, soups and fried eggs it could produce so quickly. Here I have a wooden box with a glass cover but with no reflectors on the outside. While this creation is enough to bake bread and fry eggs beneath our tropical sun, it can't cook beans. If I ever get reflectors on it, I bet it'll do that, too.

Each morning I mix water with enough wheat flour to make a dough, cover the bottom of my skillet with it, deposite the contents of two eggs atop the dough, and leave the concoction in my reflectorless "oven." By late afternoon I have fried eggs and the dough has become something like a wide, thin bisquit. The whole thing comes from the skillet looking like a pizza, and the dough could be pizza dough.

This week it's been especially nice because the leaf- lettuce I sowed in November finally got tall enough to be eaten. So I place a fistfull of lettuce atop the "egg pizza-thing," flip the pizza over the lettuce the way you might flip a tortilla over a smear of refried beans to make a bean taco, and by golly that's good.

Now I'm just waiting for the tomatoes and jalapeños.

*****

ALOE VERAS ALONG THE WALLS
You have probably heard more about the magical healing powers of the agave-like plant called Aloe Vera (ALOE VERA is it's scientific name) than I. All I can say about it is that my family in Kentucky often calls it Burn Plant, and they try to keep it growing in pots so when someone gets burned they can smear the leaves' mucilagenous sap onto the burn, and somehow that helps. It does seem to keep blisters from forming on burns that aren't too serious, and maybe the burns heal faster, but it's hard to tell.

You might like reading about the proved and unproved medical uses of Aloe Vera at a site dedicated to setting the record straight with regard to extravagant claims made about many kinds of "wonder drugs" and cures at "the Quack-Watch site." The site is at www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/DSH/aloe.html.

Often Aloe Vera is grown in indoor pots just because it's a handsome plant and can survive long periods when you forget to water it. These plants are usually about a foot tall and so brittle and succulent that you can easily break off a leaf, and inside the leaf it's soft and juicy almost like green Jello.

Here Aloe Vera is frequently planted at the base of walls and trees. Northerners accustomed only to seeing sunlight-starved, potted specimens might not recognize ours at first. Here the plant produces blades two feet long that are tough, spiney margined and sharp pointed. Instead of being pale green, ours growing in full sunlight tend to have a purplish-pink cast.

Moreover, some of ours are flowering -- something seldom seen on most potted specimens grown indoors up north. The blossoms are yellowish, about an inch long, and arrayed thickly in slender racemes rising to over four feet high. You can see such flowering plants at wolf.mind.net/SWSBM/Images/A/Aloe_vera.jpg.

*****

MACHETE SWINGING IN THE THORNFOREST
Because rural Mexican males are practically born with machetes in their hands, I'm embarrassed to use a machete here. What takes me 15 chops to cut down, an average Mexican campesino can accomplish in one or two.

Still, one of the main jobs around Komchen is to cut back weeds and bushes, so sometimes, as when I want to expand a garden, I take machete in hand and go to work. Actually, I like doing it.

I think of using a machete in the thornforest rather the way a student of Zen might approach an impossible- to-solve problem presented by a Zen master. You look at a very dense tangle of bushes, with most limbs bearing spines, and most stems limber and toughly fibrous, and you hardly know where to begin. If you're in an abstracted frame of mind, within seconds of going to work you're scratched, punctured and bloody. A thornforest tangle requires not only proper analysis but also a proper mood and attitude.

The three main problems are: 1) Stepping on thorns; 2) Your hand entering a tangle easily, but then being impossible to withdraw because of backward-curved spines, and; 3) Whacking at a limb, the other end of which then snaps around like a vengeful snake, slashing or stabbing your most delicate parts.

The thing is, it feels good to master such a tangle. When you're finished, somehow everything else seems easy.

In fact, I think that we humans are genetically programmed so that we need at least a little regular physical challenge, a little daily rubbing shoulders with simple, firmly-rooted-in-soil, school-of-hard- knock realities that can be overcome just by keeping at it and learning as you go. Maybe we humans are even programmed so that if we don't have these interactions our nervous systems drift out of whack, and neuroses proliferate instead of innocent scratches and punctures.

*****

NERVOUS, UNSATISFIED PEOPLE
On a machete-in-the-thornforest day when the above thoughts were formulating it happend that my friend Jarvis in North Carolina sent the following lines, which seem to extend the above train of thought:

"Carl Jung wrote about a conversation he had with a Native American chief who told him that his impression of most white people was that they have tense faces, staring eyes, and a cruel demeanor. The chief said, 'They are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something. They are always uneasy and restless. We don't know what they want. We think they are mad.'"

Jarvis continues:

"Commenting on this, Eckhart Tolle writes, 'The undercurrent of constant unease started long before the rise of Western industrial civilization, of course, but in Western civilization, which now covers almost the entire globe, including most of the East, it manifests in an unprecedentedly acute form. . . This collective dysfunction has created a very unhappy and extraordinarily violent civilization that has become a threat not only to itself but also to all life on the planet.'"

I can understand how the uneasy and restless manners of our Northern European ancestors evolved, as can anyone who has endured northern or central Europe's spirit- crushingly cold, sunless, wet or snowy falls, winters and springs. Imagine what it must have been like for ancient Europeans living in caves and primitive huts. During Paleolithic times, anyone who wasn't uneasy and restless with regard to getting in plenty of firewood, of properly curing furs and storing nuts, roots and the like -- didn't survive long enough to produce us as their descendents.

A good guess is that our uneasy and restless manners are genetically fixed traits. Moreover, I suspect that these predispositions lie at the root of our obsessive consummerism, and our tendencies to want more and more, even when we have enough.

It's important to understand the roots of our impulses for ever greater consumption because our out-of-control consumption is destroying life on Earth. Why is it appropriate to destroy vast forests to provide cheap lumber for buildings that are mostly unnecesary? Why do we keep filling in wetlands for more parking lots and subdivisions, while our urban zones decay? Why eat so much when we are already fat?

But, it's not enough just to say that we must end our unthinking, destructive manners. Remembering the insight about scratches instead of neuroses, it's clear that our present self-indulguences must be replaced by other behaviors -- behaviors that on the one hand satisfy the needs of our genetically programmed "uneasy and restless" predispositions, but, on the other, are useful and soul-pleasing behaviors, not destructive ones.

Such ecosystem-saving and sanity-saving activities range from planting trees and gardening, to developing one's artistic talents, to producing well-adjusted, life-loving children and socieites in which everyone can live in dignity and feel needed.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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