JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Hacienda San Juan Lizárraga
one kilometer east of Telchac Pueblo, Yucatán, MÉXICO

October 24, 2005

HURRICANE WILMA
Hacienda San Juan lies far enough west in the Yucatan Peninsula for us to have escaped the damage suffered on the coast at Cancún and Cozumel. We experienced four or five days and nights of stiff winds and intermittent showers, a few trees lost some branches and some palms lost a frond or two, but that's all.

It was a dramatic event, nonetheless, with radio stations issuing yellow, then orange, and finally red alerts in Spanish and Maya. Because Hurricane Isadora caused such terrible damage here in 2002 people were fearing the worst. At San Juan we dismantled the windmill, placed heavy wooden poles across already-shuttered windows and doors, removed paintings from walls and shifted furniture into safe spots in case the windows and doors blew out. Rumors in town were rampant so when I went there to buy bananas I was asked by several -- for we gringos are recognized as knowing everything -- what would happen. "¿Quien sabe?" is all I could reply.

For five days trees and shrubs gesticulated wildly and grass heaved in pretty waves. The sky changed moment by moment and a shower could come out of nowhere, even as the sun shined. The usual birds kept low profiles though occasionally a low-flying White-winged Dove would streak overhead or a Turkey Vulture would appear having a devil of a time maintaining his usual composure. There were lots of tarantulas along the road and a fair-sized scorpion took up residence in the bathroom. Were they looking for refuge, sensing the storm's proximity? The gardeners killed and chopped to pieces a large boa constrictor. Had this beautiful, harmless snake, who must have lived here for years, also been out searching higher ground?

If you could separate yourself from the dread of what might happen, it was actually a wonderful time to move about, to see the sky so unsettled and the trees and bushes shaking and heaving so. One felt enormous power in the neighborhood, a gorgeous surging of streams of violent, impersonal energy.

On the road to Telchac I met one-eyed Don Hipolito on his bicycle, going to feed his pigs way down a little trail into the scrub. Don Hipolito always wears a wry smile and his wiry little body seems about to erupt into dance at any time, and sometimes it does, with or without music. His nostrils flared and he swept his arm to take in the whole landscape around us gyrating in the wind-roar.

"It's all so agreeable!" he laughed conspiratorially, "¡Es tan agradable!"

*****

DON HIPOLITO'S CURE FOR DIARRHEA
Don Hipolito wanted to know how long it had taken me by bus to get here. I told him that from Kentucky I had traveled almost continuously on several buses for three days and nights.

"¡Ayyyyyy...! he groaned. "¡The other day I took a bus to Cancún, only taking about three hours, and it almost killed my back!"

"My back was OK," I replied, "but all that shaking around always gives me diarrhea."

Don Hipolito's one good eye opened wide, he smiled knowingly, and I knew he was about to give me his cure for diarrhea.

"All these henequen plants in the fields around us," he began, "just beneath the ground leading away from the heart of the plant, there are slender white runners. You dig them up, chop them into sections and grind them up, then boil them in a liter of water and drink the water. When your guts are all loose and gurgly, the juice in those henequen runners is so astringent that it'll tighten up your guts right away and you won't have to pay that doctor to stop your runs."

As he spoke, with his hands he pantomimed the loose workings of gurgly guts and how they tighten up when henequen juice hits them, like when you screw the cap onto a jar.

*****

HURRICANE BIRDS
Across the road from Hacienda San Juan, for as far as you can see, the scrub is a real mess. People in town have chopped it to pieces gathering firewood, then Hurricane Isadora tore the land up, and finally last year it was all burned. Now black, barkless skeletons of low- growing trees are heavily festooned with dark green morning glory vines and weedy members of the Cucumber Family. Beneath the stormy sky and with the wind howling through the open remains of the scrub forest, it's as ragged and forlorn feeling as a Charles Dickens cemetery on a dark winter day.

I was deep inside the desolation when a rain shower came sweeping in from the north. I was carrying binoculars and books I didn't want to get wet so I hunkered on the leeward side of an ancient stone fence typical of this area, constructed of rough, white limestone rocks back when such fences were built by men who placed each rock exactly as it was supposed to be, and who considered themselves artisans.

The wind whistled over the wall, morning glory vines lashed against the roiling sky and vertical white sheets of rain swept all around. A certain shoulder-high, rank-smelling wild mint grew there abundantly so with the wind beating all the plants so mercilessly the whole landscape smelled of rain, mud and bitter mint.

You'd think that this would not have been a good time for birding, yet right there behind the stone fence with the rain rampaging around me I looked up and saw a species new for my "Inland Northern Yucatan Bird List." Like huge, black bats with the skin burnt off their wing bones, flying above me were seven Magnificent Frigatebirds, FREGATA MAGNIFICENS, with scissorlike tails and bent wings spreading up to 90 inches across -- 7-½ feet! Of all birds on Earth, frigatebirds have the lightest body weight (2-3 lbs.) in relation to their wing area.

Magnificent Frigatebirds are common along the Gulf of Mexico shore ten miles to the north, but all last winter I never saw them this far inland. Surely they had been driven inland by the wind. They eat fish, jellyfish and crustaceans picked from at or near the sea surface, and rob other seabirds of their catches, but none of that food was here. However, right then the surf to the north was churning so violently that surely there was little chance of a bird snatching a meal. The frigatebirds just sailed aimlessly, their heads always pointing northward, for the rest of the day, and for some days afterward.

Also during the squalls I saw two small, flying ducks trying to hold their own in the wind. They were probably Blue-winged Teal or Lesser Scaup, both overwintering in the marshes just to our north. They were too silhouetted and too far away to be identifiable.

I hope this hurricane has not killed migrating birds running into it after crossing the Gulf of Mexico from the US. Fortunately, most of fall migration is over. In fact, the first bird I saw on my first morning here was a Hooded Warbler, who breeds in eastern North America's deciduous woods, and overwinters here. Yellow-throated Warblers, in summers seen or more likely heard high in pines and sycamores in the eastern US now flit excitedly along the tops of our limestone walls gleaning spiders.

*****

YUCATAN QUAIL
Out in the burnt scrub, after the shower had passed I heard a familiarish bird-warning call. I walked toward it and up flushed about a dozen Yucatan Quail. From the brief glimpse I had of them they could as well have been the US's Bobwhite.

In fact, authorities disagree as to whether what I saw was a species endemic only to the Yucatan and part of Belize, and known technically as COLINUS NIGROGULARIS, or whether the birds are merely a subspecies of North America's Northern Bobwhite, COLINUS VIRGINIANUS. Northern bobwhites extend from the US into southern Mexico, to the Guatemalan border, and in Mexico four subspecies of them are recognized.

The Yucatan Quail is unlike all Northern Bobwhite subspecies in that it possesses a conspicuously black-and-white-spotted breast. "Lumpers" say that that's not enough difference to declare a new species, but "splitters" say Yucatan Quails are clearly distinct species.

*****

NICARAGUA BUTTERFLY RESERVA
In an effort to promote locally based ecotourism I have developed a website for the Nicaragua Butterfly Reserva at http://www.backyardnature.net/nbr/

You might enjoy looking at some of the butterfly pictures there, and maybe even consider making a visit there.

*****

FAT
During my recent travels I was struck by how people in the US are getting so fat. I do believe I can see a change for the fatter just from last year! One reason I'm sensitive to this issue is that I was a fat kid back when kids were not usually fat. During my freshman year at college in 1965 I weighed 340 pounds. Though for nearly all my adult life I have weighed about what I should, even today I suffer from my fat years -- hemorrhoids, flat feet, hypoglycemia, erratic heartbeat, flabby, skin-stretched abdomen and tits...

I'm concerned about the US's fatness because my experience is that being fat makes it harder for a person to believe in himself or herself. When you're fat, there's always this thought riding around inside you: If I can't control what my own hands stuff into my fat body, how can I expect to have the character to change into the dynamic, disciplined person I want to be, and need to be if I'm going to contribute positively to the world around me?

This is a good question because to save Life on Earth we all need to acquire enough character and self discipline to change our behaviors. We must begin living in a way that emphasizes quality and sustainability of life, not mere gross consumption. By overeating we are killing ourselves, but by consuming too much of everything else we are murdering the beautiful planetary ecosystem that sustains us all.

Back in the 60s people had all the food they needed and the food was as good as it is now, yet back then average people were much less fat than now. Also back then the media were saturated with food ads, just as now. Therefore, it's not food or the media that has changed, it's us.

I think that what's happened is that we've let our minds slip into a kind of trance in which we are more vulnerable to media suggestion than back then. When you're being hypnotized, it takes a while before your trance is deep enough for the hypnotist's suggestions to take hold. Back in the 60's our society hadn't yet reached that state of suggestibility, but now we have. Day after day the TV tells us to eat, so we do.

What's really bad about our new vulnerability to mass-media suggestion is that we have succumbed to much more than suggestions that we eat and eat. We also have become more vulnerable than before to mass-disseminated political sophistry.

From what I can see, presently our culture is saying that it's just too much trouble to pay attention to basic nutritional facts, and it's too much trouble to try to grasp the world's complex realities -- such as what inevitably must happen if Iraq be occupied by foreign forces.

In our trancelike condition, nowadays it's much easier to eat whatever the TV says eat, and elect whichever politician places the greatest number of smarmy, simple-minded ads on TV.

The result is fat, fat, fat, and George Bush.

On my recent trip across the US, looking closely at the people and listening to what they were saying, I asked myself this question again and again: Is this the America our forefathers and foremothers fought and worked so hard for?

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim