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

March 25, 2006

"SPRING" COMES TO THE YUCATAN
I shouldn't talk about spring coming here because the Yucatan has a different system -- one where wet and rainy seasons alternate, with it always being warm to very hot, at least in the afternoons. On my "Yucatan Climate & Weather Page" a graph shows the details, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/climate.htm.

As I type this at 2PM on an average afternoon, it's 98° (37° C) outside my door. However, the humidity is so low that in the shade this feels good. You can see what the temperature is in Mérida right now as you read this, in the "current weather" box near the bottom of my "Yucatan Nature Page" at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/.  

The thing is, about 2-½ weeks ago for a couple of days it rained like the dickens. "It's just like in the rainy season," Vladimir told me. Mornings started out muggy and partly cloudy, the clouds and heat then gathered toward noon, thunder would start rumbling from a storm far away on the horizon, and then about 3 PM the downpour would begin. We got 3-4 inches, I guess, and the most extraordinary thing was that we had hail -- lots of it as large as mothballs. Rains and hail like that aren't supposed to occur in the Yucatan at this time of year. We were happy about the rain but it made us wonder: "If the dry season this year is so screwed up, what will the hurricane season be like... ?"

The scrub forest, the roadsides and lawns are emerald green now, as if the rainy season already had begun, though that's not due until late May or early June. Some of the trees that had lost all their leaves are now as delicately green as freshly leafed-out maples up north. Grass and weed seeds have sprouted and many herbaceous plants are blossoming. I was here this time last year and then I saw what it's supposed to be like now -- everything was brown and crisply parched, and enormous fires started up every afternoon. There was a true ache of smoky, hot aridness, so this "springy" look to the landscape is almost eerie.

"I think these new leaves and the green grass may all die back," Roberto the gardener prophesizes. "It's just too early for this."

*****

YOUR BARN SWALLOWS ARE HEADED NORTH
This week as I walked beside the mangrove swamp next to Hotel Reef I saw lots of Barn Swallows, all of them flying eastward along the coast, against a stiff wind. For a couple of hours swallows were seldom out of my sight, though there was never many of them, usually no more than four or five. This is highly significant, for Barn swallows do not overwinter in the Yucatan. This is the first time I've seen them this winter. They were migrating north, preparing to make the great leap across the Gulf of Mexico onto the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi...

Barn Swallows do overwinter from a bit south of us to Tierra del Fuego, so the swallows I saw may have flown only from Guatemala or Chiapas. Still, they were the harbingers of a majestic event, spring bird migration, and as I stood in all that wind, sunlight and dry heat amidst gyrating coconut palms and the thunder of the ocean surf not far away, I couldn't keep from remembering all the times I've documented and celebrated these birds' arrivals up north.

When I was a kid in Kentucky one March morning I entered Earl Bryant's old abandoned farmhouse and found a dozen or so dead Barn Swallows scattered on the wooden floor. They'd entered through a broken window and died during a hard freeze the night before. I remember standing there trying to imagine what it must have been like where they'd come from if they couldn't survive the coldness our native winter birds hadn't had any trouble with. Now, at the other end of my life, I'm at the other end of the migratory route, and I am wishing these swallows well as they head north.

Spring is coming... but of course it's the rainy season that's coming... yet what a thing to be split in so many ways, to be me in Earl Bryant's old farmhouse the morning after the terrible swallow- killing freeze, and to still be me here among the teeming mangroves, watching swallows depart for the North.

*****

OTHER SPRINGY BIRD-NOTES
In the mangroves I heard a bright, sweetly sung warble. It was a "Mangrove Warbler," whose song I've not heard all winter. I place "Mangrove Warbler" in quotation marks because now most experts lump that species with Yellow Warblers. "Mangrove Warblers" look just like Yellow Warblers except that they appear to have had their entire heads dipped in rusty-red paint. You can see three pictures of this pretty bird at http://www.spinaturecenter.com/index.php?page=mangrove.

Back at the hacienda, White-eyed Vireos, which have been rather subdued all winter, now call lustily each morning from the scrub, reminding me of my hermit days in Mississippi when they were so common around my trailer.

A Great Kiskadee Flycatcher, a mostly yellow and brownish bird, builds a sloppy nest atop a bracket holding a power transformer to a concrete pole, salvaging straw and plastic string from an old nest just a few feet below it. Female Bronzed Cowbirds pester the Kiskadee, peering into the unfinished nest from just two or three feet away, as if they can't wait to deposit their own eggs there, nest parasites that they are. The kiskadee chases them away but they just come back.

A small flock of Social Flycatchers, which look just like kiskadees except that they're much smaller and have very different calls, perch on the wires a few feet from the kiskadee's nest calling shrilly and watching the nest-building. I can't explain what they're doing but they come each morning and just watch. Friday a female Rose-throated Becard joined the group on the wires, calling her sharp, nasal, down- slurred tzeeeu. The kiskadee tried to run her off but she always came back. Maybe she and the Social Flycatchers are starting to feel nest-building urges and somehow watching the kiskadee at work satisfies them.

*****

THE TRUE ALARCÁN
We have two common scorpion species here, one cream colored and the other black, the black one about 3 inches long if stretched out, and the cream one somewhat smaller. I don't know which species they are, but the cream one goes by the Spanish name of escorpión while the black one is called alarcán.

Roberto the gardener tells me that the sting of the larger, black alarcán is about as painful as a wasp, but the sting of the smaller, cream-colored escorpión is much worse. We can't talk about scorpions without Roberto recalling when he went into the scrub gathering firewood with a friend. His friend was stung by one of those little escorpiones, and it was really bad, his friend getting so he couldn't walk straight. Roberto always shows how he walked down the trail with his arms and legs spread, stumbling from side to side like a drunkard. His friend had to take injections and couldn't work the whole day.

A funny thing about scorpion names in Mexico is that in most places I've been all scorpions have been called alarcán, with the name escorpión used for designating small lizards. When Roberto brought me a black one this week he called it "the true alarcán," which makes me think that in the Maya mind the two scorpion species may be regarded as more different from one another than is apparent to me.

Scorpions here are pretty common if you look for them. You can go for weeks or even months without seeing one, but if you poke about beneath things in a storage shed or in a junk pile or woodpile, chances are good you'll see one or more. Our black and cream-colored ones live in similar habitats. The locals regard them with about the same awe as a North American might a wasp.

*****

SCORPIONS, COLORS & FEELINGS
Roberto's "the true alarcán" remark reminded me of an experiment I heard about this week on shortwave. In many of the world's languages the same word is used for blue and green. If I recall, that's the way it is in Chinese. So, researchers studied the abilities of people speaking various languages to discriminate between the various hues in the blue and green part of the color spectrum. It turned out that people speaking languages with different words for blue and green, like English, recognized more subtle variations in hue than people whose languages lumped the two colors.

Some say that this evidence supports the notion that a language's structure affects the way its speakers think. In this Newsletter I've said that when I pass from one language to another I not only seem to think differently, but also feel like a different kind of person. Spanish makes me feel more social in a friendly, extended-family manner, but superficial. German makes me feel methodical, focused and isolated as a person. Of course these judgments are so subjective that they are hardly to be trusted.

Still, this new evidence about green and blue hints that maybe it's possible that each time I change language I really do experience the world a little differently. If this is true, then maybe there's something to the idea that by learning other languages we expand ourselves as individuals -- acquire perspectives and insights not available to those who speak only their native languages.

*****

CORAL SNAKE POEM ENHANCED
A while back I passed along a little poem that helps distinguish a real coral snake from most coral look- alikes. It was:

Red on yellow
Will kill a fellow.

Justin in Ottawa, Ontario, sends the following, which I suspect may be the original form:

Red touches yellow,
You're a dead fellow.
Red touches black,
You're OK Jack!

*****

EATING SNAILS AND SLUGS
In reaction to my essay "Slugs, Snails & Mu," Bob Mc somewhere in Cyberspace sent a link he figured I should know about, the nature of which can be guessed from the domain name, and the ".fr" in the address, meaning that the site is located in France. It's http://escargot.free.fr/eng/index.html.

About thirty years ago while backpacking in Spain a fellow in a little village invited me and the lady I was with to camp in his orchard, and to be guests at an outside evening meal. He set up a big black caldron of water, built a fire beneath it, and then we went walking with buckets collecting snails, which were much larger than those found in most of North America, and very easy to find. When the snails were put into the boiling water the water very quickly turned green as the snail's intestines purged. I was already a vegetarian by then but the carnivorous lady I was with said they tasted like scrambled eggs.

In a rainy, slug-filled park in Germany I've seen Magpies eat large slugs one after the other. The birds removed much of the slugs' slime by holding the slugs in their beaks and slamming them into fine gravel along pathways. As gravel stuck to the slimy slug the slime transferred to the gravel. Once a piece of gravel got slimy enough it would fall off the slug. Finally the Magpie would scrape off remaining gravel, swallow the de-slimed slug, and then go to the next slimy slug.

*****

LEAFLESS JACARATIAS
One of the oddest looking trees at the hacienda is a native species found growing here and there in the scrub. The most noticeable thing about it is its trunk -- gray and smooth like elephant hide and so disproportionately large and swollen toward the base that it looks like an elephant's leg. I'm not sure the tree has an English name, but in Maya it's called Ch'iich'puut, and in Latin JACARATIA MEXICANA. It's a member of tropical Papaya Family, the Caricaceae.

Ch'iich'puuts are especially noticeable now because they are completely leafless despite the recent rain, thus highlighting their strange trunks even more. You can see this tree, with newly green Wild Tamarinds, Leucaena glauca, behind it, a Tropical Mockingbird singing among its branches for scale, and the tips of its relatively slender branches burgeoning with clusters of yellow blossoms, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/jacarat0.jpg.

A second strange feature is the tree's fair-sized fruits, shaped like torpedoes with fins. They'll be along later, during the rainy season.

The ancient Maya found Ch'iich'puut very useful. During their warring with the Spanish conquistadores they kept from starving by eating the tree's somewhat soft bark and the spongy centers of the tree's roots. The tree's fruit also can be eaten raw or made into marmalade or a drink. The smooth bark can be pried off and used as roofing tiles. According to Bishop Landa, who had many Maya killed when they resisted conversion to Christianity, burned all the Maya libraries, and then wrote down what he knew of Maya culture, the Ch'iich'puut's young leaves can be made into a refreshing medicinal drink that cures jaundice, and as a poultice can be applied to the skin to cure boils and abscesses.

*****

A MONTH OF EASTER
Tomás, who each Monday morning arrives in his little truck with my 19 liters of bottled water, usually tarries at the gate for 20 minutes or so, chatting. Though typically I don't care for smalltalk, I do look forward to Tomás's ramblings not only because he's a friend but because his stories provide insights into the surrounding small-town Maya culture -- everything from which traditional meals are prepared for this or that festival, to how young men and women make contact with one another and get their business done.

This Monday I heard a lot about Easter -- a whole month of it. I lost count of all the events in the Christian calendar Tomás told me must be celebrated, and all the times folks here are expected to go to Mass, to fast, to feast, to watch a fellow lugging a heavy cross down the street, to get ashes on the forehead, etc.

I'm not at all against celebrations. In fact I believe that an enlightened society properly sensitized to the beauties around it would insist on many more holidays and celebrations than we have now.

The problem is that humanity has let its storekeepers and religionists decide on what's to be celebrated, and how. Thus the exquisite celestial event consisting of the Earth shifting on its axis so that the Winter Solstice arrives and days begin growing longer has been supplanted by Christmas with its over-the-top merchandizing and self-indulgences. And now when spring's rebirth of nature and all its living things should be celebrated with even more joy and ceremony than Tomás can visualize, there's all this Easter to- do.

I do believe that someday humanity will get its celebrating philosophies figured out. However, I fear that that time won't come until the most fragile and therefore the most exquisite of physical wonders are destroyed by human overexploitation of nature, and by wars wrought by religious fanatics.

But, someday, a chastened and wiser (a further evolved) humanity will find itself starting over from within the vast rubble field of Earth. Then we shall abandon childish mythologies and unthinking traditions, and begin celebrating those things truly and self-evidently much more mysterious, majestic and worthy of awe and adoration than what we celebrate now.

I wish I could participate in a future "Mystery of the Germinating Seed Week," highlighted by ceremoniously sowing useful and ornamental plants in gardens and indoor trays. "Welcome to Migrating Birds Week" will be celebrated with singing festivals and parades where the young-at-heart can strut and be flamboyant like the birds being welcomed. What a powerful moment it could be if bonfires were lit and prayers of thanks offered worldwide at the exact moment when the Winter Solstice arrives, and what a rip-snorting festival there could be to celebrate summer in all its gorgeous vitality, with fireworks and picnics on the day of the Summer Solstice.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim