JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Hacienda Komchén de Los Pájaros
just outside Dzemul, Yucatán, Mexico
February 6, 2005

THE BUS TO TELCHAC PUERTO
Monday was the last day here for Karen from Mississippi so it was a good day for us to take the 9:30 AM bus to Telchac Puerto, about half an hour northeast of here, on the coast.

The bus was an old rattletrap, and therefore much more fun than the newer ones. Hot air gushed into open windows as we lumbered down the narrow highway edged with low thornforest and big henequen plantations. The bus stopped for everyone, anyplace, and when a campesino entered taking off his sombrero, scratching his head and smiling through his deep wrinkles, he found his friends and neighbors among the passengers.

On these old buses there's plenty of room for the driver, and he's free to decorate his domain as he wishes. In the very center of the ample windshield hovered a large image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with love and hope radiating from the entire length of her body like silvery feathers. Decals were stuck all over -- more Virgin of Guadalupes, Mexican flags and pennants, and soccer emblems. The rear-view mirror was framed in pink fuzz, and small pompom-like affairs of various colors dangled from the beat-up fan over the driver's left shoulder. The driver himself smelled as mightily of aftershave as the old bus did of disinfectant.

At midday Telchac Puerto was sunburned, windblown, dusty, somnolent and friendly. The 2002 hurricane, Isador, swept away most of the beach so that now the remains of house foundations extended clear to the water's edge. All buildings previously right on the beach were severely damaged, or obliterated. Lots of once-fancy structures a little more inland had been abandoned.

It's something to stand at the water's edge imagining what it must have been like exactly right there during the hurricane's peak. And you can't keep from reflecting on how very deceptive are those long periods of any kind of peace which by nature are very rarely, very briefly but inevitably interrupted by outbreaks of outrageous violence.

*****

COWRIE SHELLS
Karen's main interest was seashells and I was amazed by how much time she spent bent over looking for the next nice find. Most shells were plain white, more or less round, and with low ridges radiating from their bases. There were also football-size shells, but these were always damaged, and lots of other kinds, but Karen was looking for those special to her, especially deep pink ones.

I was intrigued by what I assumed to be cowrie shells. They were mostly about an inch long, oblong, tapered and rounded at both ends, and each shell bore a long, narrow slit along one side. The shells were variously colored and designed, and bore high-gloss finishes. I read that their glossiness results from the animal's mantle (outer fold of skin) being on the shell's outside, secreting the shell from the top-down and keeping it protected, whereas most other shells are secreted from the inside-out.

One reason many cowries are so colorful is that sometimes species evolve so that their shells match the bright sponges or algae they feed upon. It's camouflage. The cowrie animal itself usually remains hidden during the day in holes, dead coral, rubble, or under rocks, then emerges at night to feed.

The cowrie shells I found nearly always bore small holes on one end, just right for inserting a string through. Once a string is inserted, the natural inclination is to add yet another cowrie to the string, so that eventually you end up with a necklace. From my childhood readings about early travel in the South Pacific I remember many instances of the use of strings of cowrie shells as money.

You can see a pretty selection of Hawaiian cowries at www.shellmonster.com/images/Samples_Cowries-1.jpg and read more about them and see more shells here.

*****

MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRD
Once while Karen was hunched over a pile of shells I called to her to look into the sky above her. When she did, the look on her face was classic, the transfixed expression of a person seeing something both eerie and beautiful. It was a Magnificent Frigatebird almost stationary some 30 feet above her, hanging like a kite in the stiff breeze. In the midday glare Karen saw a silhouette with narrow, bent wings 90 inches across, and a long, deeply forked tail. You can see a picture approximating what Karen saw, see the bird's semitropical US distribution (CBC map link over at the left) and read more about it at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/Infocenter/i1280id.html.

Magnificent Frigatebirds are "kleptoparasites" -- they sometimes chase down birds of other species and steal their food. This may even amount to forcing victims to regurgitate food already eaten.

One study conducted in Mexico found that Magnificent Frigatebird kleptoparasitism is often a two-step affair. A frigatebird's first attack on a potential victim can often be interpreted as "sizing up the victim." If the victim turns out to be a healthy, strong flier, the frigatebird typically breaks off the chase. But if the victim seems vulnerable, a long chase may take place, ending with an exchange of gut content.

But Karen wasn't concerned with any of that, just with the eerie and beautiful silhouette suspended above her, and I do believe that I saw in Karen's face a glimmer of primal recognition of the fact that the world is more surreal and full of the unexpected than on a sunny day we'd ever like to admit.

*****

GREEN COCONUT
A green, more or less spherical object the size of a canteloupe washed ashore and Karen was surprised when I retrieved the object and began cutting into it with my Buck Knife. My first insertion of the blade produced a a spurt of clear liquid that sparkled in the powerful sunlight. I continued cutting until I removed a conical wedge from one end, at which point I asked Karen to bring out her straws, brought along for just such an occasion, and then we drank some coconut milk.

Karen's concept of a coconut was that they are brown, very hard-shelled, and grapefruit-sized, like the ones sold in grocery stores. Inside such coconuts she was used to finding fairly hard, white "meat." Thus none of what she was seeing now seemed to have anything to do with her idea of how a coconut should be.

Well, a coconut begins its life, like all true fruits produced by flowering plants, as the pistil of a flower. The pistil at first contains three ovules, and therefore three potential coconuts, but two die by abortion, so one female coconut flower produces one coconut.

The mature coconut fruit consists of a very thick, fibrous husk surrounding a single seed, which is the hard, brown item Karen sees at the supermarket. It's like the husk of a walnut. Before the seed matures, it's filled with "milk," not "meat." As the seed matures, the "milk" turns to "meat," which technically is the seed's albumen. Hard, dry coconut "meat" is kown as copra. Thus supermarket coconuts are mature coconut seeds. What washed up that day was an immature coconut fruit with an undeveloped seed inside -- a seed full of "milk."

Coconut "milk" in a seed at the stage of maturity in which the "milk" is starting to convert to "meat" is wonderfully sweet and good to drink. At that early stage of maturation the small amount of "meat" inside is more like jelly than the hard stuff you shred to sprinkle on cake icing. On touristy tropical beaches nearly always there are men wandering around selling green coconuts at this stage of maturity. When they make a sale, with their machetes they whack off enough of one end of the coconut to expose a small hole in the seed just big enough for inserting a straw. Once you've drunk the "milk" the man should offer to cut a sliver from the husk which you then use as a scoop for scraping the gelatinous, half-formed "meat" from the interior walls of the cracked-open nut.

Our washed-ashore coconut was so immature that the "milk" hadn't yet grown particularly sweet. However, it was nutritious, wet and not bad tasting, so we were glad to have it.

*****

LAUGHING GULLS AND AN EMPTY POTATO-CHIP BAG
At this time of year the common seagull along the coast north of us is the Laughing Gull, so called because its call is slightly reminiscent of a shrill, hardy-har kind of laugh. You can hear the laugh at www.assateague.com/call-lg.wav.

The most striking feature of the mature adult's appearance is its entirely black head -- as if it were wearing an executioner's hood. But that's only during the summer. They're in their winter plummage now, so of all the Laughing Gulls seen Monday, only one was mostly black, the rest having white heads with a little dark mottling. You can the species' various plummages, the species' US distribution, and read more about them at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i0580id.html.

Most of Monday's gulls just flew up and down the beach, and sometimes a few birds gathered far offshore and floated in a sea of white caps. The one time the birds brought attention to themselves was when one of them plucked an empty, red potato-chip bag from the sea, and was immediately mobbed by about a dozen others.

What a racket those gulls made with their calls, and there was nothing like laughter in the sound. The birds fought for the bag, for possibly it contained a little food, as if their lives depended on it. No single bird ever kept the bag long enough to figure out whether it was empty or not.

A beach always brings into high relief the fact that most life is made possible only by the deaths of others (birds eating fish, fish eating other fish, plants and dead things, remains of dead creatures washing up on the sand...) and this fight for the red bag was a sudden, spontaneous eruption of that cold fact.

Once, a Brown Pelican crashed into the mélée, snatched up the bag, and maybe just because it was so big (90- inch wingspread) kept it long enough to see that it was empty, and dropped it back into the water. Then the fight continued among the gulls. It was still going on as we hiked up the beach, glad to forget how hunger can cause societal breakdowns in a flash.

*****

AT THE OCEAN'S EDGE
This week I finished reading a Spanish copy of the book "The Seven Daughters of Eve," by Bryan Sykes. Sykes is a geneticist who used recently developed gene- sequencing techniques to discover a very great deal about human history. One of his most intriguing discoveries was that about 95% of all native Europeans are descendents of only seven women who lived thousands of years ago.

A poignant fact accompanying this insight is that when these seven women lived they were each surrounded by many other people, but the descendents of nearly all those other people didn't survive until today. Entire family lines, the descendents of everyone in entire villages, all the lineages of certain regions, died out before the present day. Visualize the tree of human evolution with untold numbers of small, dead branches inside it (each dead branch once showing as much promise as any other), but with only a handful of branches fully developed today, providing the tree's current form, and continuing to live.

Apparently there was nothing special about those seven women. It was just chance that they were the ones who mothered modern Europeans. And why should most lineages go extinct? The answer is simply that long ago life for humans was as hard as it is today for gulls and pelicans fighting over potato-chip bags. Long ago, if you reached age 29, you were old.

Have we humans really reached a stage of social evolution in which we no longer have to fear leading the hard, brief lives that extinguished so many human lineages?

My guess is that before long, once again age 29 will be regarded as "old" for average humans. When our air and water are finally so completely polluted that only the very rich will be able to afford non-poisoned sustenance, when the world's disease organisms have evolved resistances to our last cheap-to-make drugs, when beautiful scientific truths are finally rejected by most in favor of politically correct -- not ecologically correct -- opinions, religious dogma and superstitions, then once again average humans will be lucky if they reach age 29.

How peaceful and how inviting was the sunny beach last Monday at Telchac Puerto. But those remains of house foundations at the water's edge were evidence like Sykes' work with human genetics that peacefulness is temporary, maybe even illusionary.

I'm not sure there's much we can do about the situation other than to stop destroying the planetary ecosystem, use antibiotics more intelligently, and stop indulging the demagagues among us.

You can read more about Sykes' work at www.vdare.com/sailer/sykes.htm.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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