JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
On-the-road edition: Chiapas, Mexico to Mississippi

March 15, 2005

FROM PANTEPEC INTO SPRING
Last Wednesday morning our friends treated Vladimir and me to a breakfast of cheese tacos, refried beans and fresh fruit, and then we sadly left Pantepec, its high-elevation pines and fine people. Down, down we went, mostly riding in the backs of wildly driven pickup trucks, the gushing air at first chilly and pine-scented, later hot, muggy and heavy with the odor of orange blossoms. At Villahermosa, Vlad and I parted, he taking an overnight bus home to the Yucatan, I getting on the first of several buses back to the US.

Two nights and one day of busing bring me to the border, to Matamoros, on the Rio Grande. I arrive at 2 AM, sleep in the station until daybreak, then hike across town to the International Bridge and cross into Brownsville, Texas.

There's a touch of spring in the south-Texas air. Green grass, lower 70s and a nice breeze, looking like rain any time, and plenty of trees and bushes freshly leafed and flowering. I head to the bus station and learn that I have eight hours to kill until the next bus, so I gravitate to a little park across the street separated from the Rio Grande only by a one-lane dirt road traveled by green-and-white Border Patrol vans. The Rio Grande here is only about 30 feet wide so I perch on the park wall in Texas and birdwatch in Mexico. All day long a mockingbird sings as if he were in Kentucky in May.

*****

FRINGE LIVING
Three middle-aged men appear to occupy the park on a more or less permanent basis. One lives out of an early-80s Buick. He pulls the car into town at night, then spends days in the park engraving glass mugs to make a little money. Another has a camp with three dogs down in the tall plumegrass along the river. He sleeps nights there in a lean-to constructed of cardboard, and during the day walks around loudly arguing both sides of an awful debate going on inside his head. He tells me what good food and clothing he finds in dumpsters, and how one can have a noon meal provided by an organization downtown called Good Neighbors. The third man is "Rafael," King of Spain, who from this very park telepathically conducts a rebel uprising in Mexico, the goal of which is to return Mexico to its rightful owner, Spain, and consequently to his own sovereign authority.

With my legs dangling over the park's wall, facing the river, I key out plants in Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants, and watch birds. I find myself fitting into this unforeseen little community pretty well, recognizing more substantial similarities between me and my new friends than differences.

For, each of us flatly rejects our society as it is configured, and none of us feels like conforming with it. Each of us has gained the insight that life can be rich and interesting without acquiring all the stuff most people in our culture think they absolutely need. Finally, in full agreement with Rafael, King of Spain, I am also unsure what "reality" is. Not only do we humans see the world around us superficially, but, also, our senses waver in response to changing hormone levels, incidents in our daily lives, even blood pressure levels. With our perceptions being perpetually distorted, how can anyone ever be quite sure what "reality" is... ?

So, here's hoping that us quaint old fellows hanging out in parks peeing in the bushes and sleeping in cardboard shelters when we need to will be left alone by outsiders. Compared to the destructive effects of consumerism and the outrages committed by our leaders, our behaviors are pretty innocuous, usually even biodegradable. Just let us be, and maybe even sometimes try to see things from our perspectives on the fringe.

*****

BROWNSVILLE'S PARROTS & PARAKEETS
The most surprising observation made during my leg-dangling time on the park wall overlooking the Rio Grande occur when four squawking parrots wing across the river and land in a park tree right beside me. It's the Red-crowned Parrot, AMAZONA VIRIDIGENSALIS, with an entirely red crown and a patch of red on its wing secondaries. You can see Red-crowned Parrots at www.jkcassady.com/gallery/rcpa.htm.

Also, several flocks of screeching parakeets fly overhead, too high for me to identify them. However, I know that two parrot/parakeet species are now resident in Brownsville: The Red-crowned Parrot and Green Parakeets. The Yellow-headed Parrot has been reported but so far hasn't been accepted by the Texas Bird Records Committee. Since I'm sure I'm seeing parakeets, they must be Green Parakeets, which you can see at www.schmoker.org/BirdPics/Photos/Parrots/GRPA3.jpg.

*****

SPRING IN "DESERT SCRUB"
The "forest region map" in my Trees of North America fieldguide classifies the lower Rio Grande Valley as "desert scrub and grass." Standing in the little park across from the bus station seeing so many large trees and luxurious bushes, it doesn't seem like "desert scrub and grass" is right. However, low levees extend along both sides of the river and the levee on the US side adjoins the park, so I walk a mile or two atop that one. Just a stone's throw from the park I find trees and bushes typical of "desert scrub and grass." Actually, in terms of structure but not in species, the forest here is pretty similar to the thornforest just left in the Yucatan.

One dominant tree here is Mesquite, PROSOPIS JULIFLORA, a low, spiny species with leaves divided into two pinnae, and each pinna further divided into many small leaflets. You can see Mesquite's curious leaves at davesgarden.com/pf/go/31989/.

Also abundant is the similarly low, spiny Sweet Acacia, ACACIA FARNESIANA, with twice-compound leaves composed of usually four or six pinnae, and each pinna divided into ten to 25 pairs of tiny leaflets. See it at davesgarden.com/pf/go/31848/.

A third conspicuous tree is the Jerusalem-thorn, PARKINSONIA ACULEATA, with evergreen, stringy leaves looking a little like green eel-skeletons. This tree's stem-tips are so hard and sharp-pointed that they are spines in themselves, plus each leaf base has its spine. See davesgarden.com/pf/go/53709/.

These three trees share a lot of features with one another. For one thing, they're all members of the Bean Family, thus all produce legume-type fruits. They are all rather low, spreading trees, and they are all very spiny. Moreover, they are all flowering right now, with yellow or yellowish blossoms. The flowers of both Mesquite and Sweet Acacia are also very fragrant, just wonderful to smell on such a fresh, springy day as this.

*****

LAWN "WEEDS" IN BATON ROUGE
Greyhound makes it hard to support mass transit in the US. After an eight wait in Brownsville, I have a scheduled five-hour layover in Houston, but get bumped twice so I end up staying eight hours, and thus missing my Baton Rouge connection, forcing me into a 23-hour layover there, since there's only one bus a day going north to Natchez, and I miss it by one hour.

Arriving in Baton Rouge on Friday afternoon there's still enough daylight left for a walk down to the Mississippi River. Having been on the road so long, I'm so addled that I walk east from the station, not west toward the river. Before I realize my error I'm deep into the Black section of town, and that's fine, since the lawns here aren't as abused with chemicals and lawn-mowing as in more affluent sections.

What a lovely assemblage of "weeds" I find flowering in people's lawns here. Here are some of the species flowering this Friday afternoon in Baton Rouge's springy lawns:

WHITE FLOWERS:

YELLOW FLOWERS

VIOLET/PURPLE FLOWERS

The links accompanying the above list lead to a variety of interesting sites. If you visit a link that looks like it needs further exploring, keep in mind that you can visit the site's base homepage by whacking off all the address beyond the basic home page.

For example, if you're at the Black Medick page and notice that this page is apparently just one page of many featuring plants of California, in your browser's address window you can cut the address www.calflora.net/bloomingplants/blackmedick.html down to www.calflora.net, hit "Go to," and then you'll find yourself at "the Home Page of California Plant Names & Southern California Wildflowers."

If you think you might want to use the above list and its links as a fieldguide for identifying your own lawn weeds this spring, you might bookmark this newsletter's archived copy at www.backyardnature.net/n/05/050315.htm.

By the way, my friends Karen and Jackie surprised me by coming down to Baton Rouge from Natchez, and picking me up, so I didn't have to spend another night captured by Greyhound. It sure is great having such wonderful friends, but I'm starting to wonder about Greyhound...

*****

ON THE BEAUTY OF SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGES
Probably you've realized that during these last months I've enjoyed some amazing experiences that would have been impossible had I not spoken fluent Spanish. The point needs to be made that speaking other languages does far more than just make life more interesting.

English, linguists tell us, is remarkable for its adaptability, and thus is especially good for a fast evolving, competitive, business-minded people. Spanish strikes me as a musical language perfect for a highly social people. You hear it in its purest form, I think, when small groups of village women meet to gossip and laugh at one another's foibles. To me German feels coldly, obsessively methodical in its pure Hochdeutsch form, but its local dialects imbue the spoken form with generous good humor and a congenial sound. French to me is elegantly self-indulgent, and intimate. You hear its beauty most around the dinner table when everyone is snatching samples from one another's plates, and when in bed with a lover.

Therefore, when you speak other languages, your emotional and psychological centers of gravity shift. Having more than one perspective on life enlarges you as a human being.

What a joy to know multiple ways of being, to be able to eavesdrop on other worlds, and sometimes even to participate in them!

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers

Jim Conrad

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