JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
On-the-road edition: Mississippi to Querétaro, MÉXICO

October 16, 2006

ACORNS FALLING
I savored my last days in the woods near Natchez, Mississippi knowing that soon I'd be in a completely different world. The lushness, the soft feeling of late summer, and the air's dry crispness is what I focused on, relishing those things the way you might keep a sliver of chocolate on your tongue to prolong the pleasure. It's good to be content with simply sitting and looking, letting the mind float as gossamers stream through the air.

On those hot, quiet, mid-afternoons the big Southern Red Oak dropped its acorns onto Jackie's tin-roofed workshop and my trailer, and sometimes next to one or another dog slumbering on the ground. What a look a dog gets on his face as he tries to figure out what an acorn out of nowhere means. A few birds with their hormones teased by these days' ever-shortening photoperiod -- so like spring's short days -- were filled with springy feelings and sang incongruently into fall's crushed-glass sunlight.

With a book on my lap I meditated on one particular view, up into the deliquescing limbs of a big American Elm next to the garden. Elegant, black, slender branches divided and subdivided like the evolving Tree of Life up through the tree's dark interior shadows to dazzling peripheral leaves. Patterns in nature convey complex feelings, and what I got from this tree was a peaceful, fulfilled feeling. You can see my view at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061016t.jpg.

*****

MESQUITE, CLOUDS AND CARACARAS
But then an afternoon's 4:25 Greyhound bus took me to Baton Rouge and through the night another bus carried me through Lake Charles and Beaumont into cussed disorganization and a missed bus at Houston, but then finally another bus pure southward along the Gulf Coast through Victoria, Corpus Christie, and then the sun rose over the Gulf when I was about 40 miles north of Brownsville on the Mexican border.

That morning's first light clearly revealed that now I was far from the soft feelings of late-summer Mississippi. Low- strung, wiry, silvery-green Mesquite blew like crazy in stiff wind off the Gulf. Crested Caracaras, those black-and-white hawks with swooped-back hairdos (see one at http://www.pbase.com/dougj/image/42485947) were thick along the road, diving and twisting in the wind. Even wilder looking than windblown Mesquite and gyrating caracaras, though, were the clouds, towering black thunderheads with glowing crimson linings boiling into the sky over the Gulf to my left, then as the sun rose higher those angry thunderheads became slate gray with jagged white linings.

Uneventfully I crossed the Rio Grande into Matamoros, Mexico, then immediately bussed south into the interior. This happened around noon last Tuesday.

In contrast to the last two trips south I've told you about, instead of continuing to hug the coast all the way around the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan, this time I plunged inland, southwestward instead of directly south, from Matamoros to Victora, through Mante to Valles. Arriving in Valles at 8 PM that Tuesday I found myself facing an eight-hour layover before my next bus. I slept in the station beside other folks stranded just like me. Then at 4 AM finally my bus struck southward, then west and UP, up into the Eastern Sierra Madre Mountains. I did this in the darkness, so I missed watching the changing vegetation zones as we ascended. Besides, I knew that on that very twisty road I'd get violently carsick if I didn't take my Dramamines, and those Dramamines knocked me out the whole trip up, as they always do.

*****

ONTO THE ALTIPLANO
On Wednesday morning the sun rose as we passed among peaks hidden among clouds. We were approaching the small mountain town of Jalpan (pronounced HALL-pahn, the last syllable rhyming with "con") in the state of Querétaro (ke-REH-tah-ro), about a hundred air-miles north of Mexico City.

That part of Mexico between Mexico City and the US border can be thought of as constituting a giant V with its top slanted westward. Mexico City lies at the V's base and the US border forms the top. Hot lowlands fringe both sides of the V but inland you run into mountains. The Western Sierra Madres form the V's western rim and the Eastern Sierra Madres form the eastern one.

Moreover, the upland portion of the V is tilted so that its base is much higher in elevation than its top. Between the V's arms the land is a good bit lower than the Sierra-Madre arms themselves, but the interior is still high enough to be considered an altiplano -- a "high flatness." A physiographic map showing all this, with the altiplano between the two Sierra Madres referred to as the "Mesa del Norte," or "Northern Tableland," resides at http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/atlas_mexico/physiography.jpg.

I have come to Jalpan because of an invitation from people administering the million-acre-large Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, which you can read about at http://www.changemakers.net/journal/00january/index.cfm.

I want to check things out, to see if I might want to return later to serve as an ecotourism consultant. Don't forget that I have published books on ecotourism, and I established and for years operated the popular "EarthFoot Free Ecotour Posterboard" for small-scale, locally produced ecotour operations at http://www.earthfoot.org.

*****

ROOSTER FIGHTING WITH JESÚS
I hadn't been at the reserve office an hour before being invited to ride with Maribel up to an isolated village, Cuatro Palos, maybe 20 miles into the mountains. Nearly the entire trip was uphill. Jalpan itself lies at maybe 1200 feet, but Cuatro Palos was at about 8500. We started out with banana trees and gorgeously flowering bougainvilleas around us, soon passed into a forest dominated by junipers, then oaks and pines, and finally predominantly pines. The pines, PINUS PATULA, bore long, drooping needles, like those at http://tncweeds.ucdavis.edu/photos/pinpa01.jpg.

At Cuatro Palos we were to visit a landowner living way downslope at the end of a very steep dirt trail. We needed a guide, and that guide turned out to be a nine-or-so-year-old boy named Jesús (pronounced hey-SOOS), a real boy who bounded downslope before us making a terrible racket because his back pocket was stuffed with a plastic bottle half filled with jangling marbles.

It turned out that a cloud-filled valley separated us from our destination so we never got there. However, the moment we decided to give up Jesús approached me and asked if I wanted to rooster-fight. He held before himself a fistful of nodding, yellow, Lily-Family flowers and, you know, I was so taken with the boy, the bouquet and the Shangri-La setting that it didn't occur to me to identify the flowers. Later I decided they were surely CALOCHORTUS BARBATUS, herbarium specimens of which you can see here.

If you view that page, notice how the flowers nod on slender stems. That's the secret to how you rooster- fight with them. You hook two flower heads across one another, pull, and the one left holding the stem with its flower still attached wins the rooster fight. Rooster-fighting with Calochortus barbatus must have been going on for a long time because in Spanish the plant's name is "Gallitos," or "Little Roosters."

Maribel and I felt pangs of regret that Jesús had plucked about 30 Gallitos, but we rooster-fought with him, and when the championship was over and we'd climbed back up the trail a few minutes, the boy appeared again with about 50 Gallitos. Once they were plucked, what could we do but fight, and tell him that bees should be left with some flowers. The concept washed right past him, for after the second championship came yet a third.

By the third championship we'd climbed out of Gallitos territory but now Maribel herself was attacking a poor Blue Salvia, sucking sweet nectar from its big flowers. After we'd all sucked until we were ashamed of ourselves we went on, and then I had to show Jesús how to make a really loud noise by placing a section of flat leaf atop your tongue and hissing.

When I was a kid my father taught me how to rooster- fight with purple violets who have, if you remember, very nicely crooked necks. Someone when I was a boy also showed me how to suck nectar from certain long, slender flowers, like honeysuckles (note the name), and someone also taught me about hissing with flat leaves atop the tongue. I hope people are still out there passing along such vital information, and still enjoying such things as sucking nectar from certain kinds of flowers.

*****

BORDERLINE CLOUDFOREST
Friday morning two hours before dawn Roberto came to my door saying we were headed for the mountains again. In Xilitla we bought gorditas stuffed with refried beans, fried cactus slivers, onion and chili, and off we went. Our steep, narrow trail took us up through oak forest to a borderline cloudforest very like the one I described when Vladimir and I visited highland Chiapas a year and a half ago.

A cloudforest forms atop mountains and ridges where warm, moist air rises, the moisture condenses, and the area either exists inside a cloud or at least is very humid. You can see a Mexican cloudforest at http://mexico-herps.com/Tamaulipas/Cloud-Forest.jpg.

In that picture notice that the rocks and tree limbs are covered with moss, ferns, bromeliads, orchids, peperomias and a host of other moisture-loving, low- light-needing, lush-looking plants. What we hiked into was a lot like in the picture, including having the huge, free-standing limestone rocks, but maybe with half the number of bromeliads, ferns and the like. There wasn't enough light for my little camera to make a decent picture.

As was the case in Chiapas, despite all the exotic elements just mentioned, a goodly number of species were very familiar, or almost so. The area was thick with Sweetgums, the same species we have in eastern North America. There were greenbriars, Poison Ivy, hickory trees, magnolias very like our Southern Magnolias, and on the ground lots of Partridgeberry with small, red fruits. Among the ferns were familiar looking Polypodiums, spleenworts and Botrichium, or Rattlesnake Fern. How strange seeing these old friends growing very well next to bromeliads, dwarf palms and tropical orchids.

As in Chiapas, the agent responsible for this isolated, mountaintop island of vegetation with its many elements from our eastern North American forest was the last Ice Age. The glacier came down with our forest migrating southward before it. When the glacier retreated most forest species migrated back northward, but some rose in elevation instead, finally taking refuge in these high places where the climate approximates what's found much farther to the north.

The last Ice Age ended about 11,000 years ago. During that time some of these isolated mountaintop species have evolved into entirely new species still obviously close to the parent species in the north. Other species developed mountaintop subspecies, and others are still considered the same species as found in North America. The Sweetgum is one of these. There's a greater tendency for Sweetgum leaves down here to bear three points instead of North America's five, but taxonomists don't regard that as enough of a reason to declare the Mexican individuals as constituting a new species.

We found Mountain Lion tracks near deer tracks, looking as if the big cat had been following the deer. The Puma's prints were so large I got goosebumps. They were much, much larger than the ones left by the Mountain Lion I saw in California last year.

One of our most interesting discoveries was where lightning had hit a tree, run down the trunk and into the roots, forming a trench about ten feet long where dirt and cantaloupe-size limestone rocks had been knocked from above the roots.

While descending, Roberto jubilantly spotted some blue mushrooms that bled copious amounts of dark blue latex when their caps were broken. Unhesitatingly he dropped them into his pocket, saying wonderful things about blue mushrooms fried with garlic, chili, onions and tomatoes. I suspect that this is the same blue mushroom I've eaten so gratefully up North, the delicious LACTARIUS INDIGO. I got a nice shot of Roberto grinningly displaying his evening meal at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061016r.jpg.

I congratulated Roberto on knowing his mushrooms so well but he replied, "This is the only one I eat. In all of Mexico there's just one blue species and it's edible. I don't touch the rest."

*****

JALPAN'S SUNDAY MORNING MARKET
Thanks to good ol' Jerry in Mississippi, who provided me with a digital camera, now I can SHOW you what I experience here in Mexico. For example, yesterday, on Sunday morning from around 9:30 to 11:00, I strolled through Jalpan just to see what was there.

Hilly Jalpan's side streets are steep and typically cobblestoned. You can see a street I climbed, showing how most houses are colorfully stuccoed, and in this particular picture how so often spectacular bougainvilleas overflow housetops and walls, and at the bottom of a street banana trees might grow, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061016s.jpg.

Those bougainvilleas, which come in a variety of colors from white to red and purplish red are omnipresent and imprint themselves onto a town's character. Just look at the one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061016b.jpg.

At the top of the street, as you might expect, stood the cathedral. When I took the next picture at 9:00 AM someone was up in the clock tower manually ringing the bell and people were filing into the church past an old man with his straw hat ready to receive pesos: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061016i.jpg.

Downhill along the main road a lot of people were entering a certain street, often whole families with a certain festive look about them, and I suspected that this street led to the market. I followed people down the cobblestone street still slick with the night's rain until things leveled out a bit and the sound of music, people talking and laughing, and dogs barking became a general roar. I found myself next to a table beneath a red tarpaulin, and a lady selling many kinds of sweetbreads, tortillas and other baked items, and beyond her were fruit stands, an open-air selection of shoes, and in the background an open restaurant filled to capacity. This picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061016x.jpg.

Farther up the street were more fruit stands beneath colorful tarpaulins. There were open-sided clothing stores and an open-air butcher shop with many animal body parts hanging and lying about, and many kinds of flesh ground up and stuffed into chains of bladders draped over poles. The white-aproned butcher stood formally before his offerings awaiting business. See this at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061016y.jpg.

You can see another such shot, this one with a fine variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs in heaps along the sidewalk (notice the forested hills in the background, their peaks disappearing into clouds) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061016z.jpg.

This is a working-person's market. Here you don't find toyshops, jewelry shops or expensive perfumes, but rather things used every day, and they're sold at prices cheaper than you'd pay in a regular shop. You might enjoy seeing a metalworker's display of machetes and the special curved tool men use when they're cutting tall grass and low bushes. That picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061016k.jpg.

I didn't leave the market empty-handed. I was so glad to find some boiled Chayote, in Latin SECHIUM EDULE. Chayote is a kind of squash traditionally grown by indigenous folks in cornfields where the vines may scramble seemingly interminably among the corn plants. The four-inch-long fruits themselves, which are hard and inedible before cooking, taste more or less like potato. The big seeds have their own excellent taste, and even young chayote vine sprouts taste good. The rinds, which easily peel off the cooked fruits, range from being smooth to soft-spined. Mine were spiny. You can see them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061016h.jpg.

I also found a thick-skinned, slightly pulpy kind of banana that local folks usually roast in embers of their cooking fires, but which I like raw as well, plus they're usually the cheapest kind to buy. Mine are at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061016a.jpg.

One fellow was doing a brisk business selling pear- sized cactus fruits, or "tunas," and boiled sweet potatoes, called "camotes." My camotes turned out to be sweeter than any I've ever had, or maybe by this time I was just really hungry, and really glad to be participating in this Sunday-morning market. You can see where I bought my camotes (camotes at the top, tuna below) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061016c.jpg.

So, then I returned to my apartment generously supplied by the biosphere people, enormously enjoying those gorgeous bougainvilleas, and trying to master the art of whistling into the soft rain that had begun to fall while eating my wonderful but crumbly camotes.

*****

TALKING ABOUT THE SIX MIRACLES OF NATURE
They asked me to give a talk on Saturday, so I did, the main theme being "The Six Miracles of Nature," which I wrote about in my February 11th, 2002 Newsletter. Here are the miracles:

  1. that matter exists at all
  2. that matter began evolving as soon as it existed
  3. that life came out of the evolving matter
  4. that life evolved into many forms
  5. that life became conscious of itself
  6. that mere consciousness evolved into an ability to learn and to reflect

I chose this subject because I wanted to focus on the Sixth Miracle of Nature, that of us humans being able to learn and to reflect, instead of just reacting automatically, according to instinct, tradition or common practice.

This Sixth Miracle is different from the other miracles because only now (during the last few million years) is it manifesting itself. It manifests itself when someone rises above genetical and societal programming to think for himself or herself. Making this point is appropriate here because the employees of Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve are consciously doing things completely out of step with the world around them.

They are planting trees instead of chopping them down. They are encouraging traditional local crafts instead of focusing on bringing the usual industry into the area. They are buying ecologically critical land and just letting it lie, instead of developing it. This is a beautiful instance of the Sixth Miracle of Nature taking place right before us.

I said that each time one of the biosphere's good works is accomplished it's a spark of the currently actualizing Sixth Miracle. Plant a tree, and there's a spark. Help a local pottery person sell some pots, and there's a spark. Encourage a local family to produce an organic garden, and there's a spark.

Right now these are just isolated sparks in a vast, dark wastland, but maybe if we keep working at it someday there'll be enough sparks that they'll all unite into a great flame that will spring up, spreading light everywhere, everywhere, everywhere...

How wonderful that we can participate in a genuine miracle just by using our brains while opening our hearts, and starting to live in sustainable, life-respecting ways.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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