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

February 4, 2006

BREAKFAST WITH CHAYA
Each morning after jogging I pick my way into the rubble next to the old hurricane-collapsed henequen processing plant and make a campfire. I like beginning each day where the destruction is magnificent, where the jagged remains of gray, high, two-foot-thick, limestone-rock, stuccoed walls rise before me, their blown-out windows and doors opening into nothingness, strangler figs growing atop the walls just as they do the crests of Maya ruins not far away, the ragged jumble of big, shattered rocks randomly strewn all around me...

Well, to see if reality coincides with your mental image of my breakfast spot, you can see a photo Vladimir took of me there one morning this week at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/060204.jpg.

I think it's the strangler figs atop the walls that please me most, and the ragtag scattering of other weeds among the rubble. I think the future world will be like this, almost destroyed but with a few scrappy species holding on, dignifying ruins with their presence. I identify with the strangler figs, or at least aspire to be like them. I gaze at them as my fire catches and smoke rises into the glossy coconut palms just beyond the rubble. I plan my day not in alliance with those glossy, pampered palms, but with a hopeful but austere perspective of a weed amidst rubble.

I can't get US-style cornmeal here but there's a more finely ground corn product used for making tortillas. I mix that with oatmeal and wheat flour (at about a 1:2:1 ratio), add water until it's loosely gummy, and fry it in corn oil until it's stiff and brown on both sides, and that's as close to cornbread as I can come. I've tried several times to grow greens here but the Black Iguanas ate every plant. Vladimir and I are building fences for one last attempt at an iguana- proof garden but I don't have much hope.

There's a local bush or small tree here, however, producing six-inch-wide, maple-like leaves that can be cooked like collard greens. They taste good and have surprisingly high levels of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron and Vitamins C and A. The plant's local name is Chaya. It's CNIDOSCOLUS ACONITIFOLIUS ssp ACONITIFOLIUS, a member of the Euphorbia Family, which explains why its leaves look a little like Poinsettias, also of that family. You can see a picture of leaves that are now part of my body at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/chaya.jpg.

Chaya is the domesticated form of a local weedy bush with soft leaves protected by abundant, nettle-like stinging spines. The wild species is called Mala Mujer, or "Bad Woman," maybe because it looks so good, but stings so smartly. In fact, even Chaya has some stinging hairs which leave the hands smarting after picking the leaves. Here average people eat Chaya regularly, typically mixing a few leaves into broths and stews containing ingredients such as squash, tomatoes, onions, chili, garlic and a few shreds of some poor old hen.

One of the wonderful things about Chaya is that you can simply poke a cut a stem into the ground and if you keep it watered it'll quickly grow into a new bush with plenty of leaves.

I have never understood why so few people in our culture order their lives so that they can enjoy peaceful, contemplative breakfasts which they prepare themselves, right then. It seems to me a simple matter of going to bed earlier, and rising earlier. I treasure my daily communion with the orange, flickering campfire, the sizzling "cornbread" issuing its wholesome, parched-corn odor, the miraculous chemistry that converts raw, bitter leaves to sweet greens, the way raw eggs sputter and coagulate when dropped into hot oil, and then the water heated in a pan until it steams, and how good that food tastes when eaten while sipping plain hot water with a slightly smoky taste...

When the Earth at last is no more than rubble and the greenhouse-effect-induced, hurricane-ravaged tropics extend nearly to the poles, I hope that someone will have remembered to stick a few Chaya stems into the ground somewhere above the new sea level.

*****

SPONGES ALONG THE BEACH
Algae, horseshoe crabs, dead fish, coral and bryozoa -- recently I've described all these organisms that commonly wash onto the sandy beach near Hotel Reef. The most conspicuous beach item remaining to talk about is the sponges. This week as I walked along a tourist's-dream kind of beach I paid special attention to washed-up sponges. You can see one I found at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/sponge.jpg.

One thing not showing in that picture is the sponge's lightness and sponginess. Those features are to be expected because much of a sponge consists of open space. Looking at the sponge in the above picture, the basic concept is this: Water carrying tiny food particles and oxygen enters the sponge body through the body's thousands of very tiny, barely visible pores. The water then circulates through a system of channels inside the sponge body, finally exiting through any of the larger holes clearly visible in the picture. These larger holes are called oscula (singular osculum).

Facing into the sponge's internal cavities are tiny, special cells called choanocytes. Choanocytes bear microscopic, whiplike hairs known as flagella. Wiggling flagella keep the water circulating, plus they draw water-borne food particles into a collar- like structure on the choanocyte, where the particles get stuck in mucus at the base of the flagellum. Then the food is digested either by the choanocyte or a nearby amoeboid cell.

We've seen that when we hold a chunk of washed-up coral or bryozoa we're holding the remains of a colony of tiny individuals, not just one organism. In contrast, the sponge in my hand in the above picture is a single animal, albeit a very simple, loosely organized one. Though a sponge is little more than a mass of fairly simple cells embedded in a gelatinous matrix, the cells do recognize one another and thus more or less coordinate their behavior, plus different cells are specialized for different bodily functions. These features -- the cells coordinating their activities, and there being specialized cells for distinct bodily functions -- cause the sponge to be animal, not a colony of animals.

Still, sponges are so unlike all other animals that often they are placed into their own subkingdom, the Parazoa. They earn this distinction because they show no symmetry and lacks all tissue and organs.

You can see a diagram showing sponge anatomy here.

*****

JUG FROGS
Each Monday morning at around 10:45 a little blue truck pulls up to the gate and honks. I go running down a long, straight driveway bound by tall Royal Palms, carrying an empty, 19-liter-size plastic jug, for the honker is Tomás el Aguero -- Tommy the Waterman. I drink 19 liters of bottled water each week (5 gallons), so each Monday I trade my empty jug for a full one. It costs eight pesos, about 80¢ US. If you buy just a one-liter jug at a bus station it costs more than that, so I'm getting a pretty good deal.

In one of the hurricane-deroofed warehouses there's a room with a few old 20-liter water jugs, now shattered and useless. The other day I was searching among them for a flowerpot when something inside one of them moved. Eight treefrogs were inside the jug, along with about a quarter of a cup of black, mosquito-larva- filled water. Vladimir took a picture through the jug's spout, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/jugfrogs.jpg.

The picture shows four of the eight frogs. They're all treefrogs, which is clear from the pads on their toes and their ability to stick to the jug's sides. The treefrog at the upper right in the picture is our most common species, Baudin's Treefrog, SMILISCA BAUDINII.

The other three, I THINK, are Milky Treefrogs, PHRYNOHYAS VENULOSA. I'm not quite sure because their colors and patterns depart a good bit from what's shown in my herp book. Mainly, the heads of these jug frogs are all gold colored, while the gold on the heads of the frogs pictured in the book have much less gold. However, as a Milky Treefrog should, my jug frogs have toad-like warts. That makes me 80% sure.

If they are indeed Milky Treefrogs, they are distributed from central Mexico through Central America into South America, though their occurrence is somewhat spotty. They are most common in marshy or swampy environments. During the dry season, when there's not an old water jug around, they are found in bromeliads and the axils of banana plants, where water often collects.

This was a pretty good find!

*****

A FRUITING CALABASH-TREE
Among the most eye-catching plants at the hacienda are the Calabash-trees, CRESCENTIA CUJETE, of the Bignonia Family, which also contains Trumped Creepers and Catalpa trees. Our Calabash-trees are now fruiting. To see why they are so eye-catching, look at the picture Vladimir took of me next to one this week. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/calabash.jpg.

That spherical, soccer-ball-sized fruit in the picture is unlike any other fruit I can think of, though it is indeed uncomfortably similar to my own round, smooth noggin next to it. In the picture, notice how the tree's leaves arise from along thick branches, not mainly at the tips of slender branches, as in most trees. From a distance, Calabash-trees, which are native here, look otherworldly in their scraggliness, and if they bear such fruits as ours do, they're even more mind boggling. Fruits can grow to 20 inches through.

The fruits are gourdlike with hard rinds and soft interiors. In the past people here cut the fruits across their middles, cleaned them out, dried the rinds, and had themselves two perfectly serviceable bowls. Sometimes they decorated them, making them quite nice.

Old fruits lie beneath our trees rotting away. I hope I can catch these new fruits at the right stage and make some old-fashioned bowls for my own use.

*****

AMONG THE MANGROVES
The aerial view of Hotel Reef shows a complex of buildings separated by sand from the Gulf of Mexico to the north by about 20 yards. South of the complex, about 20 yards from the parking lot, there's a shallow lagoon that fills and empties with saltwater according to the tides. Many such lagoons parallel the beach all along the Yucatan coast, and they are home to an enormous variety of birds, crabs, fish and other organisms.

When the tide is low extensive mudflats are exposed, attracting several small wading bird species such as Semipalmated Plovers and Semipalmated Sandpipers. These birds stalk across the shiny mud busily probing with their beaks, occasionally extracting writhing worms with their needle-like bills. They must seldom catch anything because often I've seen that when suddenly a worm does appear in their bills the birds look surprised, flit their wings and jump backwards. At high tide White Pelicans, Neotropical Cormorants and others float on the water's surface, the pelicans reminding me of stately little white-sailed sailboats, the cormorants of dark, low submarines cruising at the surface.

At high tide in most places the lagoons' waters extend right up to dark green, shrubby walls usually eight to fifteen feet high. These shrubby walls are formed by woody shrubs known as mangroves. Mangrove wetlands such as these are among the most biologically rich and therefore ecologically important ecosystems on Earth.

In this part of the world we often speak of four different mangrove species. Next to Hotel Reef three of the species are very common, and I suspect the fourth is nearby.

In the lagoon next to the hotel two mangrove species predominate: Red Mangrove and Black Mangrove. From a distance they're very similar -- both with opposite, simple, shiny, evergreen, leathery leaves on much- branching, woody limbs. However, their flowers and fruits are completely different, and they belong to unrelated families.

Red Mangroves are RHIZOPHORA MANGLE, belonging to the Mangrove Family, the Rhizophoraceae. This species is easy to identify because the bottom part of its trunk branches profusely into numerous leafless "stilt roots" or "prop roots" that arch broadly in the air before entering water. Stilt roots provide the plant with stability in the loose mud and gather oxygen for underground parts. The airborne roots of one Red Mangrove intertwine with the next forming impenetrable thickets. Shellfish colonize the roots and fish and many other kinds of creature hide among them. The roots gather mud and build up the land. Red Mangrove is one of the most ecologically important woody plants I know.

Red Mangrove's fruits germinate while still on its branches. A green, sharp-pointed root emerges from the fruit's base forming something like a dagger pointing earthward. When the fruit falls, its dagger-root stabs into the mud, automatically planting the new tree. You can see a young fruit in my hand, with its green, sharp-pointed root just emerging from the brown, teardrop-shaped fruit at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mangrove.jpg.

The other super-abundant mangrove next to the hotel is Black Mangrove, AVICENNIA NITIDA, of the Verbena Family, the Verbenaceae. It's easy to identify because from its widely spreading, belowground roots hundreds of slender, gray-brown, pencil-like items emerge vertically from the mud to about a foot high. These are called pneumatophores and they collect oxygen for the submerged roots. Black Mangrove grows a little higher above the low-tide mark than Red Mangrove, so typically you notice their pneumatophores emerging from mud, not water. I often spot tiny crabs rushing through the Black Mangrove's pneumatophore jungle as I pass by.

Even higher above the low-tide mark, often on fairly dry ground at the edge of causeways crossing lagoons, there appears Buttonwood, CONOCARPUS ERECTA, of the Combretum Family, the Combretaceae. Unlike the three other species considered to be mangroves, Buttonwood has alternate leaves. At this time of year its fruits are clustered in spherical, brown, pea-sized, conelike heads.

The fourth species I expect to find soon is the White Mangrove, LAGUNCULARIA RACEMOSA, also of the Combretum Family.

You can see pictures of the Red Mango's stilt roots, the Black Mangrove's pneumatophores, and the other species as well, and read about them all at a fine University of Florida page at http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/SouthFlorida/mangrove/Profiles.html.

While at the above page be sure to click on the links "Adaptations," "Importance of Mangroves," and any other topics that tickle your fancy.

*****

MANGROVES, ROCK-&-ROLL & ART
The other day during one of my talks at Hotel Reef a birder asked which birds in our local lagoon and beach habitats were not also found in the US. I could think of several species that don't get as far north as southern Texas and southern Florida, but none were strictly lagoon or beach species, or else they were so rare that they'd probably not be seen on a typical tourist day-trip.

Since I was encouraging my audience to visit these habitats by signing up for daytrips to the mangroves at nearby Dzilam de Bravo, the inevitable question arose: "If we'll probably see nothing new, why bother?"

My main interest in promoting these trips is to funnel money to people living in and beside the mangroves earning their livings providing boat trips through them, and offering other services such as selling food or local handicraft along the roads. If local people make money from their lagoons they'll be less likely to destroy them. Red Mangrove is considered one of the best trees for making charcoal. Buttonwood makes a heavy, hard, and fine-textured firewood.

I came up with a few reasons for visiting the reserves, such as getting to see thousands of flamingos compared to southern Florida's relatively few. I mentioned the pleasure of meeting the local people and trying some new foods, and I explained how the money they paid for the visit would translate into lagoon habitat protection. However, I could see on people's faces that I wasn't convincing anyone. Then I came up with this:

One thing we have that neither southern Texas nor southern Florida has is that we're a good bit closer to the equator. When you're in a boat threading the channels among mangrove thickets here the sun that beats down is hotter and heavier than anything felt up north. As a consequence, the ecosystem around you here is more highly charged with solar energy, and buzzes more intensely with biological workings. If a Florida swamp is rock-and-roll at 150 decibels, a boat ride in our mangroves hits 175.

The people loved it. Some asked how to sign up for a mangrove trip.

So, why does irrational but artful and emotional cajoling so often succeed when simple information and rational persuasion don't?

In last week's Newsletter we saw that the wisdom of evolution has accommodated the fact that sometimes it's appropriate for birch trees in full sunlight to share carbohydrates with fir trees in shade -- via the cobwebby mycorrhiza network. Maybe, in the same transcendent manner, evolution's genius has detected that all reality is connected into a single unity by some kind of network profoundly more ethereal than mycorrhiza. And maybe human artfulness and emotionality are the very means by which we participate in the communication between, and the coordination of, all of reality's parts.

When we look into the vastness of a starry sky or the eyes of a newborn child, and for half a second feel the Earth bump a little to the side, for that instant exquisitely feeling the majesty of things, could that not be something like an electrical impulse coursing through Gaia's sensory network?

If all this is true, then to save the Earth-ecosystem we must go beyond merely continuing to gather information about the living things around us -- though that is very important. To stop us from our ongoing destruction of Life on Earth, what's needed is for us to get to know our neighboring plants and animals in a manner so artful and heartfelt that it'll catalyze our greater emotional involvement with them. If we come to love living things, ourselves included, maybe we'll stop the killing.

In fact, maybe this is the reason the Universal Creative Spirit has evolved humanity so that in every human community there are always artists. Maybe it's the artists who in the end will save us.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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