JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written at Hacienda San Juan Lizarraga
one kilometer east of Telchac Pueblo, Yucatán, MÉXICO
and issued from Hotel Reef Yucatan 13 kms to the north

November 23, 2005

BUYING ORANGES & EGGS
On San Juan's eastern and western boundaries local farmers tend citrus orchards producing sweet and sour oranges, lemons, tangerines and grapefruit. Each week I visit the western orchard to buy oranges and eggs.

When I arrive wearing my empty backpack Don Gildardo slips a side-bag strap over his shoulder and goes picking oranges right from his trees. The thin skins of his oranges are smooth and green, and the fruits themselves are much juicier and sweeter than the bright orange, thick-skinned ones in typical US Markets.

Instead of calling his oranges "naranjas," the Spanish word for oranges, Don Gildardo refers to them as "chinas." At first I regarded that as a strange name but then I recalled how English speaks of mandarin oranges, thought to have originated in China. Also, our English tangerines get their names "from Tangiers," though they're not from there originally. These names remind us how exotic oranges once were to our English-speaking ancestors. At Don Gildardo's I get about 50 oranges for a dollar, and he seems apologetic to be charging so much.

Don Gildardo also keeps a lot of hens of different kinds, some in large pens and others running loose, and some are traditional Mexican chickens with featherless necks. These with featherless necks were much more common in the past so I'm tickled to see them here. The eggs I get are every pale hue, including greenish and bluish ones. Their yolks are bright orange and stand up high as they sizzle in my skillet over each morning's campfire.

Don Gildardo always has his radio loudly playing cheery, bouncy salsa music and the hens, goats and pigs -- if I am interpreting their body language correctly -- seem to like it, especially the hens. There are also black-tailed, red-bodied roosters in separate little pens. Sometimes men from town come to talk privately with Don Gildardo. The way they stand apart as they talk slyly eying the roosters I figure they must be plotting rooster-fighting strategies for upcoming events.

Like all other farmers in the area Don Gildardo lives in town and commutes each day to his plot. The vast majority of farmers ride bicycles but Don Gildardo is a bit more of a go-getter so he drives an old, beat- up truck. Each morning as I jog an hour before sunrise I listen for the approaching hiss of bike tires, for often farmers are heading to work even at that hour and if I don't watch we can scare the dickens out of one another when we meet.

*****

FOUNTAIN FLOWER
Sometimes certain individual plants appear to recognize that they are on display and react by growing more beautiful than seems natural, or even possible. In front of San Juan's Big House right now a 20-ft-tall tree with large, dark green, pinnately compound leaves rather like walnut-tree leaves is blossoming so gorgeously that surely it knows how we admire it each day.

The tree's flowers are about hand sized and shaped a little like very large squash blossoms, except that they are upturned, scooplike. When it rains, water pools in the flowers' bottoms so that birds and insects drink from them. This accounts for the tree's Spanish name, Flor de Fuente, or Fountain Flower. In English sometimes it's called African Tulip Tree, and it is indeed from Africa. It's SPATHODEA CAMPANULATA, a member of the Bignonia Family, in which we also find Trumpet Creeper vines and Catalpa trees.

Before now I've only seen this tree with red flowers but the ones on the tree before the Big House bears orange flowers. As dusk approaches and darkness grows they seem to shine brighter and brighter. You can see the typical red-flowerd form at http://www.museums.org.za/bio/plants/bignoniaceae/spathodea_campanulata.htm.

*****

SEASIDE HALOPHYTES
One of the treats of being in the tropics is that often you see plants and animals obviously related to species you know up in the Temperate Zone, but the species down here behave differently from their northern cousins. For instance, some plant families that produce mostly or entirely herbaceous species in the North, down here may manifest themselves as woody shrubs and trees.

Tropical beaches can twist your mind even more. For, added to the tropical consideration is the fact that organisms growing next to or in saltwater often produce odd growth forms to deal with the salt. You know that if you spill salt on your lawn it'll kill the grass. The reason has to do with the fact that if the water outside a plant or animal cell -- outside the cell's semipermeable membrane -- is saltier than inside the cell, that water will stay outside the cell and the plant roots will be unable to absorb water. In salty soil such as that at the beach, plants have a serious problem getting water into their bodies.

Plants that have evolved special features enabling them to survive in salty soil are called halophytes. A large percentage of halophytes are succulent in nature. Therefore, on a tropical beach it's fun to look for plant species that not only are woody, though Northerner would expect members of their family to be herbs, but also succulent or semisucculent.

That's exactly the case with one of the most common and conspicuous woody bushes standing about chest high along the beach next to Hotel Reef. For a long time I wondered what this strange-looking shrub was and when finally I found a flowering plant what a surprise it was to see that the plant was clearly a member of the Borage Family. Northerners think of the Borage Family as a family of herbs – remembering members such as bluebells, comfrey, heliotrope, forget-me-not, hound's-tongue and garden borage.

The beach shrub was Sea Rosemary, TOURNEFORTIA GNAPHALODES, similar to what you can see at http://www.baobabs.com/Tournefortia%20argentea.htm.

It was a similar case with a woody shrub with hand- sized, orbicular, succulent leaves, and fruits resembling clusters of grapes. It was Sea-grapes, COCCOLOBA UVIFERA, also common here, to be seen at http://www.botany.hawaii.edu/faculty/carr/images/coc_uvi_mid.jpg.

A succulent, halophytic member of the Mustard Family flowering along the beach now is CAKILE EDENTULA. Its turgid leaves are so crisply juicy and salty that I snack on them as I walk along the beach. You could make a decent salad of just this plant's leaves and a bit of salad dressing, and maybe some tomato chunks and a bit of garlic. It can be seen at http://botit.botany.wisc.edu/images/veg/Cliffs_Dunes/Cakile_edentula_VK.php.

*****

FRUIT-PECKING GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKERS
The other day the gardeners decided to take a break from their sweaty machete swinging and drink the juice from some of our green coconuts. As Roberto retrieved coconuts from a tree Franciso came and invited me to join them. The coconuts were macheted open with little more than an expert flick of a wrist. The cool, sweet juice sure was good and chatting in the palms' shade was delightful. Francisco decided to have a second serving but when he sliced off the coconut's top he found the cavity inside hardly developed and with little juice. The cavity's inner surface was deformed with warts.

"Carpentero," he hissed contemptuously, which meant "Woodpecker." "The carpentero comes and pecks one hole in the young coconut, drinks a little, then flies away. And when he wants more, instead of returning to the coconut he's already ruined, he goes to a new one and ruins it."

The woodpecker in question was our most common woodpecker species, always to be seen, the Golden- fronted Woodpecker, distributed from Texas and Arizona through Mexico to Nicaragua. Birders in the eastern US would look at this species and see hardly any difference between it and their own Red-bellied Woodpecker. The differences are there, however, if you look for them. You can see a Golden-fronted at http://www.gdphotography.com/1289.htm.

This wasn't the first time I'd hard complaints about Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. Both Don Gildardo and the owner of the citrus orchard on San Juan's western side, when they first saw me wandering around birding, volunteered their opinions about this woodpecker who destroys so many of their oranges.

"They peck a hole, drink what they want, then later do the same thing to another orange, not the one they've already ruined!"

The holes let in insects and disease organisms.

The other day I saw a large, red shirt flying from a giant bamboo stem rising from inside an orange tree. I didn't have to ask what it was for, and I could see for myself that it wasn't doing any good.

*****

QUANTUM MECHANICS & BALCHÉ
On Sunday Gerardo from Mérida visited bringing along a newly released DVD on which experts spoke of the philosophical implications of recent discoveries in quantum mechanics. What does it mean that one thing may be in more than one place at the same time, that the future is not necessarily distinguishable from the present and the past, and that solids are hardly present at all, from certain perspectives being no more than illusions human minds create for their own utility?

Not two hours before seeing the film I had sat atop a building with Don Pedro from the village. I'd asked him if anyone around here still makes balché, the mildly intoxicating drink of the ancient Maya (they do) made from fermented honey and the bark of a tree growing here, Lonchocarpus longistylus.

The question led Don Pedro to tell me how until 15 or 20 years ago Maya farmers in this area sponsored a yearly ceremony in their cornfields presided over by a certain old man in the community who knew how to conduct the rites in Maya. In the center of the cornfield a bowl of atole (emulsified sweetcorn cooked and sweetened) would be suspended above the ground in a certain way, then at all four corners of the field balché would be offered to the spirits.

Don Pedro says that farther east, in the state of Quintana Roo, "where the people are more innocent," the ceremony is still conducted. He says it has disappeared from here because people no longer establish cornfields, in response to changing economic conditions. It's true that here the countryside supports a few citrus plots and fields of henequen, but mostly it's just abandoned, hurricane- and fire-ravaged scrub and weeds.

So, what is one to make of a world in which the secrets of quantum mechanics are being revealed even as balché continues to be offered to the spirits?

I find myself sensing that quantum mechanics is right about the timeless unity of all things, and the illusionary, brain-manufactured nature of the world we humans inhabit. However, at the same time I recognize the beauty in offering prayers of thanks.

In fact, if I had a cornfield, I think I'd invite the old man from town to come do his thing in it.

Giving thanks to the Universal Creative Impulse is always a fine, mind-focusing, self-orienting thing for a human to do.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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