JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Temporarily issued from "Cyber El Profe" in Pantepec, Chiapas, MÉXICO

March 2, 2005

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WALKING
Once again I am discovering the therapeutic value of walking. We all know how it tones up the body, but what´s meaningful to me now is how it massages he mind, levels moods and clears the way for incisive thinking and nuanced feeling. Open sky, hot wind, straight road, I go clomp, clomp, clomp, hour after hour, until the days pass like sun- dazzled gossamer streaming past on the wind.

There´s something to be said for staying in one place, having routines and knowing where you´ll sleep tonight. However our culture says that stay-at-home thing until it´s blue in the face, so I´ll say something different, that cutting loose is good, that wandering disreputably is sweet, and that one foot before the other is honest meditation on the Creator´s works.

Jets, trains, buses and cars have their places, but in terms of value to the human spirit they miss the point. There´s more meaningful difference between the north and south sides of a tree trunk than between an alley in Calcutta and an alley in Pittsburgh. Thus even walking is too much of a fast- changing thing, but human spirits are restless so in the end walking is the best compromise.

Hello there sky-high vultures, hello wind and sunlight and heat, hello body feeling itself alive and working OK, hello insect-buzz in the weeds, here I come world clomp, clomp, clomp, smiling at the Tamarind tree down the road, such deep shadows where I shall drink some water and take a nap and dream of walking farther down the road.

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WINDMILL
For the first time n my life I´ve spent a few days in the presence of a windmill. I stands on four spraddled legs and rises about 45 feet high. The rotating part consists of 18 blades with red- painted outer ends, and there´s a big, red vane behind keeping the whole thing pointed into the wind. Up behind the wheel there are cogs and a piston, and when they move you hear tinny metal clanking. A clear plastic hose runs atop the ground carrying water from the windmill´s storage tank to various groves and gardens, and you can see the water moving inside the hose because bubbles are in it. It´s grand just sitting watching the wind sending water through the long hose.

When I was a child in Kentucky it was normal for country folks to set wind vanes atop garden posts. Usually they were no more than a propeller on a stick, with a flat tail at the back end. It was cheering to see the propeller turning, and to keep tabs on which way the wind was blowing. Windmills provide this valuable service, too, only on a much larger scale.

Why did our culture abandon windmills and wind vanes? Or maybe the better way of saying it is this: We know why we abandoned windmills and wind vanes, and isn´t it a shame?

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ARTHUR´S TREES
On Sunday, February 20th, I strap on my backpack, hike out of Komchen, and keep heading eastward through Dzemul and beyond, to and through Telchac Pueblo four or five miles away, to Hacienda San Juan. I´m expected there, as friend and webmaster, for San Juan´s owner wants to go into the bed-and- breakfast business, and she needs a webpage. There´s a graceful, old, two-story, columned mansion approached by a road along which stand tall Royal Palms, and there are shady gardens and park-like grounds, and well furnished rooms and bungalows, all that´s need for B&B, except for the tourists, who so far don´t know that Hacienda San Juan exists.

The previous owner, a transplanted Oklahoman named Arthur Pogue, planted the grounds with a fine variety of ornamental plants, and his main passion was palms. There are fan-palm kinds with and without trunks, clump-forming and solitary- growing ones, there are Coconut Palms and several kinds of Royal Palms, and palms ´m at a loss to classify. What a joy to see all these strange and beautiful beings in such an unexpected corner of the Yucatan thornforest.

Arthur died a few years back so here I pay homage to him and all tree planters, for tree planters always understand that the ones who´ll get the most benefit from their effort will be those who´ll come after them.

In any community no one is a better citizen than the tree planters.

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INTO CHIAPAS
On Friday the 25th my friend Vladimir and I get on a bus and leave the Yucatan. Hacienda San Juan is Vlad´s home. He´s a young man preparing for college and he has a passion for plants, so I´m glad to have him come along on my wanderings southward.

By Saturday morning at dawn, after riding the bus all night, we´re on another bus leaving Villahermosa, in the southern state of Tabasco, still headed south. The Yucatan we´ve left was brown and its low thornforest was scorched to brittleness by the driest dry season in memory but, down here, though it´s also the dry season, pasture grass is deep emerald green and tall trees are gratifyingly lush.

At first the land is flat, cloaked with morning fog and coursed by wide, slow-moving, meandering rivers. There are vast banana plantations, each large cluster of bananas enclosed in blue plastic bags to thwart birds and bats. Tall mango trees bear abundant basketball- size inflorescences of small, greenish-yellow flowers. In people´s yards stand other fruit trees like chicozapote, breadfruit, orange, grapefruit and guava.

Soon we enter Mexico´s southernmost state, Chiapas, and the road begins climbing, twisting, up and up and around hard lefts and hard rights, with a whitewater stream alongside us, and soon the vegetation changes to a less tropical nature. The light gradually acquires that clearness and crystalline purity typical of the highlands.

I have friends of friends who live deep in these mountains, so Vlad and I are expected in the little town of Pantepec (pop. About 1000) just southwest of Rayon, about 50 air- miles south of Villahermosa, but much farther along the twisty road. Having frends awaiting us means a lot. About 95% of the landscape here is too steep for a tent, and what level ground there is is occupied by humble dwellings and gardens. We are offered a tin-roofed hut in a good- smelling pine forest, and we happily stay there several nights.

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PANTEPEC´S CLOUD FOREST
Our hut being in a pine forest reveals this fact: We have climbed high enough in elevation to have left most tropical vegetation below. Thinking of southern Mexico´s highlands as a raised table, we´re exactly on the table´s northern edge, at about 5,500 feet in elevation.

As moist, warm air rises up our table´s northern wall it cools and the moisture in it condenses into clouds. When the cloudy air gushes over the table´s rim you get chilly fog that moves through forests and villages.

Air here is so humid, on the average, that branches on older trees and on trees in certain exposed situations are heavily laden with epiphytic plants --. Mostly bromeliads, lichens, mosses and ferns, but also orchids, peperomias and other plant types. Some tree limbs are so thickly mantled with epiphytes that no tree bark is visible. Some bromeliads are bushel- basket size with inflorescenses long as my leg and subtended by long, red bracts. The original forest (none of this is primal, and even this is disappearing fast) must have been a wonderland.

During the rainy season entire days and nights can pass sodden with continual rain and fog, but this is the dry season, so most mornings are cloudless. Then toward noon clouds gather around certain peaks and come boiling up the valleys below. As the afternoon progresses the air grows moist and there are periods of chilliness. Clouds toy with the landscape, sometimes separating peaks from their bases, sometimes clogging up n valleys, sometimes briefly rushing among the trees around you.

Some nights are clear but others are choked with cloud-fog. On such nights in Pantepec the fog comes down streets in wind-blown coagulations, with people walking among and through them. Car headlights cast well-defined cones of light before them and house windows opening into lighted rooms hang suspended in blackness but are framed with glowing auras. Pantepec is magical then and its inhabitants are true cloud-dwellers, but no one seems to notice.

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MIXED-UP SWEETGUMS
During the last ice age North America´s plant and animal communities shifted southward to avoid the cold. Some of those species moved as far south as here. When the ice sheet retreated, the plant and animal populations returned northward. However, members of certain species, instead of migrating northward in order to stay in their favored climate, moved upslope.

Therefore, today, right here on the slopes around Pantepec, you can find isolated populations of species not occurring in central and northern Mewxico, but very much at home in the forests of eastern North America. The most conspicuous of those species is the Sweetgum tree -- the very Sweetgum so abundant around my trailer all those hermit years in Mississippi.

Sweetgums here are common, but they give the impression of being confused. Some trees look as if they should be in Kentucky in October, bearing yellow, fungus-blotched leaves, and laden with spiny fruit- balls. Other trees -- maybe standing right next to October-in-Kentucky trees -- have only freshly emerged "spring leaves." Yet other trees may be leafless, or else producing both last season´s leaves and new ones, and a few trees may bear both seasons´ leaves and be flowering as well!

Sweetgums evolved to lose their leaves during the northern winter. However, here we have no freezing winter, and our day lengths at this time of year are longer than they currently are in North America. Maybe that´s why Pantepec´s Sweetgums seem so mixed up.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter readers

Jim Conrad

Visit Jim's Backyard Nature site at www.backyardnature.net

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