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

January 13, 2006

NORTHERS
As I issued last week's Newsletter at Hotel Reef a classic norther was blowing in. People here call them "nortes." This Norte had been in the air for some days.

Most of the week before had been scorchingly hot and glaring. Then for two days clouds came from the northwest, not from the northeast, as they usually do. The day before my Reef visit it grew cloudy and much cooler, probably not breaking 80° the whole day. On Friday, my Reef day, the sky was even darker and the wind even cooler, surely never hitting 75°.

The wind was magnificent, roaring, shaking the Coconut Palms like pompoms, sending ripples of sand migrating onto the hotel steps, and blanketing the lobby furniture with dust and grit. The ocean's crashing waves muddied the water nearly to the horizon. Focusing my binoculars on the horizon, out where the water was much deeper, hill-like waves with long white crests formed and crashed in slow motion. No boats were out there fishing that day, no tourist put a toe into the angry water, and no Brown Pelicans dived for fish offshore. Seaweed piled up on the sand and all that salt spray made my thin hair poke straight out during my evening talk.

I love the beach when it's like that. I love the way the wind howls, salt spray stings your eyes and sand peppers your body, leaving thimblefuls of sand in your pockets. Especially I like the dark, raggedy clouds and the feeling it all conjures in you.

A few seconds on the Internet explain what a norther is. When a norther is blowing through, just call up any weather map covering the entire US and you'll see slicing across the nation a slender crescent of snow in the north and rain in the south. Its top horn will be in the Northeast but its bottom one will reach deep into the Gulf of Mexico, even to here.

So, our northers are North American cold fronts reaching all the way down here. I've experienced them in Guatemala and I've seen them set frost on doomed banana trees in Chiapas. Once in Chiapas an old Tzotzil-speaking man asked me during a particularly painful norther whether it was true what they said, that across the next mountain range a volcano in Guatemala was erupting ice.

Tuesday morning a radio station in Mexico City reported 27° F at the university and in the northern state of Chihuahua there was a town with 1° F. Knowing the humble homes in which many people up there live, I can't imagine how difficult it was for them.

*****

BALLOONFISH/ PORCUPINEFISH
On the beach the other day I found a dead fish about ten inches long, now turned stiff and white beneath the sun. Finding dead fish there isn't unusual, but two features of this one caused me to pick it up and take a closer look.

First, the fish was densely arrayed with stiff, sharp, toothpick-size spines. Second, its conspicuous teeth were fused together in such a way as to form a beak-like mouth. Seeing the teeth, I could visualize the fish gnawing at something hard like shellfish or even coral.

Googling the keywords "fish, spines, Mexico" I came up with thumbnail pictures leading me to decide that probably I'd found either a Balloonfish, DIODON HOLOCANTHUS, or the very closely related Porcupinefish, DIODON HYSTRIX. Whichever it was, the finding aroused my imagination mightily.

For, I'd seen such spiny fish in underwater nature documentaries, but never had I known the real thing. The ones in the films, when threatened, had suddenly puffed themselves up to form spiny globes few predators would have wanted to tackle. Reading about the behavior of Balloonfish and Porcupinefish, I found that they do the same thing, gulping water when they want to expand. You can read about and see these fish, including a puffed-up one, at http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/Gallery/Descript/Balloon/Balloon.htm.

That page also tells how these fish use their fused teeth. After spending their days hiding in crevices they prey on snails, sea urchins and hermit crabs by using their teeth to crack open shells.

The species' spines and fused teeth must be a pretty effective combination, for both species are distributed circumtropically -- throughout all the world's tropical seas -- in such environments as mangroves, seagrass beds, and rocky, open bottom areas.

How wonderful to know that right offshore, and not just in documentary films, Balloonfish and Porcupinefish live such exotic lives.

*****

TREE COTTON
Not far from my lodging there's a bush that's currently eye-catching because it's decked with gobs of white cotton. It is indeed a cotton plant, of the genus GOSSYPIUM, but it's unlike cotton grown in the US because it's a small tree. Definitely a perennial, it stands about eight feet high and arises from a woody trunk about as thick as my wrist.

In fact, there are more species of cotton than one, and some of those species are trees. My old Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants lists four species and says of them that "The cotton-producing species are much modified by long domestication and hybridizing, and the original specific types are often difficult to make out."

The two species of cotton contributing most through hybridization to US cotton fields are Upland Cotton, GOSSYPIUM HIRSUTUM and Sea-island Cotton, G. BARBADENSE. There's also Levant Cotton, G. HERBACEUM and Tree Cotton, G. ARBOREUM. The name "Tree Cotton" is shared by several species, varieties and races. The first two species listed here are considered to be native American plants but the second two are thought to be Old World. Each species manifests itself in several geographical races.

*****

SU-TUT
The other day Cotting in Pennsylvania sent me a picture she'd taken in Mérida's market. It showed a bowl of fruits looking very much like dried jalapeño peppers dusted with brown powder, except that the fruits were spirally twisted. A hand-printed sign placed in the bowl read "'SU TUT' PARA LOS NIÑOS QUE NO HABLAN CLARO" -- "'Su-tut for children who don't speak clearly." You can see Cotting's picture at http://www.mexicanmercados.com/produce/su-tut.jpg.

The tough, naturally spiraling fruits are unlike any other fruit in our area, though the bush producing them is distributed throughout much of tropical America. Su-tut is its Maya name; I don't have an English name for it. It's HELICTERES GUAZUMIFOLIA, a member of the Sterculiaceae, the Cacao Family, in which the native Mexican "Chocolate Tree," Theobroma cacao, also is found.

I asked Roberto the gardener if he knew Su-tut, and he did, sometimes seeing it when he wanders far from the road looking for firewood. He'd heard that it was medicinal, but he didn't know what it was used for. That night Roberto asked his father and the next day he told me this:

"Su-tut is for children with speech problems," he said. "You put a fruit into the child's mouth, twist it nine times in one direction, then twist it nine times in the other direction, and after you do that for a few weeks the child no longer has problems speaking."

I have seen the placebo effect successfully cure too many illnesses to dwell much about how this cure might work. Moreover, I savor the esthetic value in making the connection between that hard, spiraling fruit, and a kid who can't speak straight. I am glad I have learned to honor Su-tut.

The day after I learned Su-tut's value, Roberto's Maya-speaking father died. The father had known all about Su-tut, the son had known its name but not its value, and I don't believe that any of Roberto's children know the least about either Su-tut or the Maya language that dignifies the plant with its special name.

These days I am feeling with a special poignancy the sadness of the old wisdoms going extinct.

*****

THE D.H. LAWRENCE HERB GARDEN
I like reading classic novels that supply rich details about the protagonists' everyday lives. Typically I don't give a hoot about the story lines but I relish learning what people in a distant time and place ate and wore, how they behaved and, especially, how they thought.

Currently I'm reading D.H. Lawrence's "Sons and Lovers," published in 1913 -- it happened to be in the hacienda's library. Here's a description of the hero's English-miner father having breakfast one morning in the mid 1800s:

"He toasted his bacon on a fork and caught the drops of fat on his bread; then he put the rasher on his thick slice of bread, and cut off chunks with a clasp-knife, poured his tea into his saucer, and was happy."

This father also

"...had hanging in the attic great bunches of dried herbs: wormwood, rue, horehound, elder-flowers, parsley-purt, marsh-mallow, hyssop, dandelion, and centuary. Usually there was a jug of one or other decoction standing on the hob, from which he drank largely."

The father claimed his wormwood brew was "Grand! ... better than any of your tea or your cocoa stews... "

The idea of drying herbs in an attic, if I had an attic, or any building for that matter, appeals to me. If the thought strikes a cord in you, too, then this is a good time for those of you in North America to start planning an herb garden for spring planting, for now is when seed catalogs are being sent out. In fact, why not grow the herbs mentioned above -- along with some mint and chamomile for teas -- making a D.H. Lawrence herb-garden? Here are some notes to help you get the right material:

WORMWOOD: Usually we think of ARTEMISIA ANNUA as wormwood. However, that's a sharp-smelling weed too bitter to drink for fun. I suspect that the father in Lawrence's story was drinking a brew of ARTEMISIA ABSINTHIUM, from which formerly an oil was distilled and used in the French liqueur Absinthe.

RUE: RUTA GRAVEOLENS, a bitter-tasting plant used medicinally. In too high concentrations it can be very poisonous. Traditionally in Mexico it was used to induce menstruation, and to abort fetuses.

HOREHOUND: MARRUBIUM VULGARE, an aromatic mint.

ELDER-FLOWERS: SAMBUCUS CANADENSIS in North America, S. NIGRA in Europe -- you can pick flowers from these wild shrubs during the summer.

PARSLEY-PURT: Regular garden parsley is PETROSELINUM CRISPUM, but I don't know what "purt" means. You may want to Google it.

MARSH-MALLOW: ALTHAEA OFFICINALIS, closely related to hollyhocks.

HYSSOP: HYSSOPUS OFFICINALIS, a medicinal mint

DANDELION: TARAXACUM OFFICINALE, can be picked from fields not sprayed with chemicals

CENTUARY: Usually written Centaury, it's CENTAURIUM SCILLOIDES, of the Gentian Family.

*****

A BEAN-FLOWER'S SNEAKY STYLE
I'm teaching Vladimir how to identify plants using technical characters. Soon he's off to college to study ecology and he'll need this talent. Thus on a typical day we take a walk to gather some flowers, then sit for two or three hours working with what we've found.

One day this week while examining a blossom belonging to the Bean Family Vladimir happened to press down on a certain petal in such a way that it caused the flower's style to thrust from where until then it had been hidden in a coiled, cylindrical structure. Immediately he realized that he'd stumbled upon a sophisticated pollination mechanism.

For, the style is part of a flower's female sex organs -- it's the slender neck atop an ovary, and bears at its top the stigma, which is where pollen grains germinate when the flower is pollinated. Pollen grains then send rootlike tubes down through the style, conveying the male sex germ to the female ovules inside the ovary, where fertilization takes place.

In real life a heavy bee or other pollinator would have landed on the petal Vladimir pressed, and the style would have emerged from its protective sheath, reached down, and snatched up pollen from the pollinator's back.

You can see our own pictures of this flower, with my finger pressing down a petal so that the style emerges from its coiled sheath, at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/beanstyl.htm.

*****

THRUSTING STYLES & INTELLIGENT DESIGN

Over the years often I've written about plants and animals whose features were so remarkable that they seemed almost inexplicable -- such as the neat thrusting style described above. I've used phrases such as "evolving toward" and I've even referred to "the Creator." This has caused some to assume that I am a proponent of "Intelligent Design."

Though the definition of "Intelligent Design" hasn't yet crystallized well enough for me to take a final position on it, my first impulse is to reject it decisively.

First, the name itself, in my opinion, misses the mark. My experience with nature suggests that the Universe has come about not through an intelligent plan but through something more akin to a creative, spiritual impulse. This impulse is majestically magnanimous and artful, yet not terribly concerned about the comfort or welfare of each of its individual creations

Second, I believe that one must judge a religion or any social or political construct not by its Holy Scripture or manifesto, but by how the concept manifests itself among people in everyday life. Intelligent Design is advocated most forcefully today by aggressive, materialistic, right-wing Christians with whom I don't want to be identified.

Yet, I am in awe of and profoundly respectful of the things of the Universe, and I am not reluctant to refer to the Universe as a creation. Since any creation has to have been created, nor am I averse to thinking in terms of the Creator. I sense a Universal Creative Force evolving things forward, and since we must use words to describe concepts, the term "Creator" is OK with me.

Therefore, if the definition of "Intelligent Design" eventually proves to rest on the simple notion that a Creative Force seems to be creating the Universe in such a way that certain evolutionary trends and natural laws are detectable by human minds, I'll say that I'm a proponent of it.

However, if the final definition encourages people to pray for Devine intervention in their own lives and if the concept is identified with any particular religion -- particularly one tolerating unrestrained and unsustainable materialism -- then I shall not be a supporter of the concept of "Intelligent Design."

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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