JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
On-the-road edition: from the Mexican border to Kentucky

April 25, 2006

OUT OF MEXICO
I left Mérida, Yucatán, México on Wednesday, April 5th. After two nights and one day of nearly continuous travel on a series of buses I arrived at El Cielo Biosphere Reserve in Mexico's northeastern-most state of Tamaulipas. I was half a day southwest of Texas's southernmost point at Brownsville. There I backpacked and birded for a few days, the report for which can be read at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/060413.htm. I didn't distribute that report as a newsletter because it was almost entirely about birds. You have to be something of a birding fanatic to like that kind of reading.

On April 10th I entered the US near McAllen, Texas and the next day arrived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on a beautiful spring morning. After six months of the Yucatan's dry-season heat, dust and glaring sunlight, that morning's soft-feeling, dewy balminess smelling of honeysuckle almost made me cry. During a long layover waiting for the bus north, in a weedy abandoned lot beside the Greyhound Station, I lay on a piece of plywood getting used again to sunlight that didn't sting, sunlight that was diffuse and gentle. Knee-high Ryegrass rose above me and I marveled at the graceful curves of the grass's arcing blades. That morning everything was graceful, soft and of the texture of honeysuckle odor.

I tarried for a few days in the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, at the home of my friends Jackie and Karen, where my old trailer of hermit days is parked. Such greenness! Each day the trees' leaves grew noticeably larger and darker than the day before. It was the peak of bird migration and one morning a Scarlet Tanager flew right by me as I fixed breakfast over a campfire next to the trailer, just as in the old days. Orchard Orioles sang from several treetops and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo chuck-chuck-chuck-chucked from deep within a tall, shadowy Water Oak.

*****

MAGNOLIAS TO DAISY FLEABANES
When Karen heard that I was heading north she proposed that she and her little van carry me and what books, computer parts and mildewed clothing I wanted to my new base, and I agreed if I could pay for the gas. On Monday, April 17, we pulled onto the Natchez Trace Parkway at Natchez and headed north.

Along the road outside Natchez the first Southern Magnolias were flowering, Chinese Privets were in full bloom with great bunches of small white blossoms, the Tulip Trees were full of yellow flowers, roses in people's yards were putting on a show, at woods edges Black Locust trees held clusters of white flowers among their shadowy boughs, the Chinaberries were bright with lavender blossoms, and next to the roadside pavement there were white Daisy Fleabane, lavender-colored Lyre-leaved Save, White and Red Clovers, and -- most eye-catching of all -- Crimson Clover, which just went on and on, so pretty against the endless greenness. Out in the fields corn was about six inches high (I'd seen some tasseling in southern Texas). The Redbuds, Flowering Dogwoods, Mayapples, daffodils and azaleas had already passed their flowering peaks.

By the time we reached northwestern Alabama the Crimson Clover was dropping out entirely, but the Lyre-leaved Sage was growing thicker. When you viewed the sage from the car as you came down the parkway the many thousands of blossoms created a broad brush- stroke of lavender against emerald green.

The farther north we traveled the more great fields of white-flowered Daisy Fleabane we saw, and yellow- blossomed Groundsel, or Senecio, and the forest's deep greenness took on ever more shades of pale silveriness.

We camped on our way up the Trace, taking our time looking for fossils in rock outcrops and watching the wildflowers come and go. At Merriweather Lewis Campground in southern Tennessee on April 18th we hiked down to the little stream below the campground and on a near-vertical cliff face of outcropping shale noted: white-flowered Rue Anemone, Spring Beauty, and Mayapple; purple-flowered phlox, Bluets and Wild Geranium; yellow-flowered Wood Betony; red-flowered Scarlet Paintbrush, and; maroon-flowered trillium.

On April 19th we reached our destination of Polly's Bend in northern Gerrard County, in Kentucky's southern Bluegrass Region, about 45 minutes south of Lexington. Coming out of Natchez it'd been sunny and heading toward the 90s. At Polly's Bend a cold rain was falling. Many trees were not leafed out at all, or else the leaves were just emerging from buds. There was no Crimson Clover and no Southern Magnolias, but there were great, gaudy fields of yellow Groundsel and huge splashes of white Daisy Fleabane. Plants were two or three weeks behind where they'd been in Natchez.

*****

POLLY'S BEND
A few weeks ago during my weekly email download at Hotel Reef Yucatan a mail came in beginning "I think we need to talk." It was from a lady named Ruth, who lives parts of each year in Mérida there in the Yucatan. Like me, Ruth was a native Kentuckian, and when she's not in Mexico she's in Kentucky. Moreover, like me, Ruth is into environmental education and cross-cultural sensitization. In Kentucky Ruth lives on an isolated farm in an almost-closed loop of the Kentucky River, and the land within that loop -- which on a map looks like an upside-down foot -- is known as Polly's Bend.

Ruth came to Hacienda San Juan and we brainstormed. We spoke of doing things at Polly's Bend that might advance alternative technologies, and we imagined how we might encourage people to rethink their lives, to reflect on the beauties and techniques of simple living, and to relate to nature, especially through nature study with me. We spoke of sensitivity tours to Mexico, and of workshops both here and there. Who can say where all this brainstorming will lead?

Ruth invited me to Polly's Bend, so now I am living in an old, two-story, white-painted wooden farmhouse with a magnificent view of fields and woods. A lot of the area beyond the Kentucky River nearly encircling us is a mishmash of booming real estate, wonderful old farms being subdivided, and choked highways festering with tickytack, but Polly's Bend itself is an island, an oasis, of quiet countryside. The Nature Conservancy owns some of it.

At this writing Ruth and I have accomplished little more than having ideas and enthusiasm. But, stay tuned.

*****

THE BLUEGRASS REGION
Kentucky is known as the Bluegrass State, but only a small part of its north-central area is known as the Bluegrass Region. I grew up in the Western Kentucky Coalfields Region and as a kid I always wondered what all the fuss about bluegrass was about. I still think it's a little strange for Kentucky to be so proud of its bluegrass. I'd be gladder to be from "The Sassafras State" or maybe "The Bobwhite State."

The Bluegrass Region's boundaries are not defined by the presence of bluegrass -- grasses of the genus POA -- but rather by geology. The region coincides with a large, more or less circular outcropping of mostly Ordovician-age limestone, though some areas of Silurian and Mid-Devonian outcroppings are included.

By "Ordovician-age" I am referring to the Ordovician Period, a traditionally recognized division of the Earth's geological time scale. You may want to review the geological time scale's eras and periods at http://www.backyardnatue.net/g/geo-time.htm.

The Ordovician Period covers the time between about 443 and 490 million years ago. As my page at the above address indicates, it's thought that at that time life on Earth still hadn't moved from water onto land. At that time, life on Earth was strictly marine. The most advanced forms of life were species of fish who still hadn't evolved the hinged jaws found in most fish species today. The Earth's most conspicuous forms of life during the Ordovician were ocean-living trilobites, brachiopods (seashells), bryozoans, corals, graptolites, nautilus-type cephalopods, and marine algae.

Of course it's not the Bluegrass Region's geology that makes it famous: It's its racehorses. However, the racehorses are here because of the geology.

For, the Bluegrass's Ordovician limestone is uncommonly rich in minerals that make their way into the bluegrass, which is eaten by the racehorses, and those minerals make the racehorses' bones particularly strong.

*****

LYRE-LEAVED SAGE
More needs to be said about the Lyre-leaved Sage, SALVIA LYRATA of the Mint Family, that put on such a show along the Natchez Trace Parkway's frequently mowed roadside as Karen and I drove north. See it at http://www.lowermarlboronursery.com/photo_html/0180.html.

I think that I'll never forget the silvery highway endless coursing through that gorgeous landscape impossibly green all around, and blue above, and then with those untold millions and millions of deep lavender Lyre-leaf Sage blossoms making such broad strokes of lavender so softly diffusing into the general greenness.

Usually when plants grow in such abundance and their success is enhanced by disturbances such as frequent mowing, the plants turn out to be alien weeds. That's not the case with Lyre-leaved Sage because besides occurring in disturbed habitats like the Trace's mowed roadsides it's also a native plant very much at home as a wildflower in open woods throughout most of the eastern US, as far north as New York and Indiana.

Lyre-leaved Sage is a real sage, too, considering that plants belonging to the genus Salvia are sages. Much- planted Scarlet Sage is Salvia splendens, and herb- garden Sage is Salvia officinalis. At first glance these species seem very different from one another but, if you look closely, you'll see that their blossoms are structured very similarly.

All sages -- all members of the genus Salvia -- have both corollas and calyxes that are two-lipped, with each blossom showing a definite upper and lower part. The most distinctive feature of the genus, however, concerns the stamens. The stamens' filaments bear appendages that when nudged by visiting pollinators move the stamens so that they bend down and daub pollen onto the visitor. You can see a diagram of how this works with a visiting hummingbird at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_polln.htm.

The Lyre-leaved Sage's leaves don't look particularly lyre-shaped to me, lyres being stringed harps used by the ancient Greeks. To me they look something like big dandelion leaves.

Dandelions, by the way, were long past their fruiting puffball stage in Natchez, but when we arrived at Polly's Bend many were still flowering, and some fields were almost white with dandelion fruiting heads. On our first night there, however, it rained, and the next morning all the white fuzz had been knocked off.

*****

A BOOK ABOUT THE LOWLAND MAYA AREA
Now that I'm no longer writing about the Yucatan, if past experience is any guide, a goodly number of Newsletter subscribers will unsubscribe, while a whole new flock of Kentuckians and Kentucky sympathizers will sign up. Before you Yucatan people pull the plug I want you to know about a wonderful new book I've just learned about, because Ruth managed to buy one. Its title is, "The Lowland Maya Area, Three Millennia at the Human-Wildland Interface." Its 36 chapters are written by various authors, and the book is edited by A. Gómez Pompa et al.

Names of several of the book's chapters indicate the contents:

"Rhythms of Precipitation in the Yucatán Peninsula"; "Hydrogeology of the Yucatán Peninsula"; "Interaction of Microorganisms with Maya Archaeological Materials"; "Impact of Hurricanes of the Forests of Quintana Roo, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico"; "The 'Nonmarine' Mollusks of the Yucatán Peninsula: A Review", and; "Fungi in the Maya Culture: Past, Present, and Future."

The thick paperback is published by The Haworth Press, Inc. of New York (http://www.haworthpressinc.com) and costs a hefty $79.95 -- $89.95 with postage and handling. A hardback edition costs even more and is available at Amazon.com. If you want to review or purchase the book through Amazon.com, please use my Amazon.com search box at http://www.backyardnature.net/amazon/index.htm.

*****

SPRAWL
Central Kentucky, like so much of the US, is succumbing to urban sprawl. The landscape of gently rolling hills of grass crisscrossed by white board fences and interspersed with little woodlots, forested ravines and neighborly small towns, which I vividly recall from my days as a graduate student at the University of Kentucky in Lexington back in the early 1970s, is being converted to side-by-side real-estate developments cluttered with look-alike houses.

This is the week, by the way, when it was announced that for the first time in our history, more people in the US live in "suburbs" than in cities and rural areas.

Why have we chosen to change the land in this manner, and to live like this?

I don't believe that anyone has chosen anything. What's happened is that society has thoroughly programmed us to expertly navigate the complex web of national and international commerce, but there's been hardly any teaching, preaching, politicking and other forms of social programming relating to our human relations with the biological Web of Life. Few among us doubt that a good citizen must work for his or her money and spend it wisely, but who among us invests much time or energy really concerned about such things as the disastrous ecological effects of such things as sprawl?

What's worse is that so much of sprawl's environmental destruction is funded by people doing things on credit -- in a society itself perilously in debt. If my understanding about how homebuilding and home buying works is accurate, the ecosystem-killing sprawl encircling Polly's Bend is mostly done on credit and/or on speculation by people guessing or at least hoping that they'll eventually be able to pay off enormous debts. And these debts are being incurred to finance ways of life that are themselves destructive and unsustainable.

Thus sprawl arises from two patently unsustainable and some would say dishonest and immoral features of current citizen behavior. One is that of incurring enormous debt in a chancy world where there's a reasonable possibility that much of it will never be repaid, and the other is consuming many, many more natural resources than an adequately happy, healthy person needs.

To save Life on Earth each of us, one human being at a time, must reexamine our own behavior, shake off that part of our social programming we ourselves find to be unacceptable, sensitize ourselves to what we truly believe to be the beautiful and meaningful things on this planet, and then we must live our lives advocating and protecting those things we most care about and love.

If we can manage these simple but supremely difficult changes, environmental outrages such as sprawl will simply end, the landscape will blossom, and we'll all be a lot happier and healthier.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim