JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Genesis Retreat in Ek Balam, Yucatán, MÉXIC

October 30, 2006

BREAKFAST WITH A NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH
Here there's no space for my traditional morning campfire, but there's a gas stove and plenty to eat, so it works out. Moreover, when I breakfast I have before me a fine view of the gardens. Well, actually you can see my view from the blue table at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061030v.jpg.

Each morning from maybe 20 feet away I'm accompanied by a Northern Waterthrush who walks (not hops) our gravel paths and flits from limestone rock to rock, always bobbing his rear end in the most exaggerated manner. I suppose the evolutionary idea behind this bobbing is that if a predator is distracted by a bird's waving rear end it may end up clutching a bunch of tail feathers, not a more essential part of the bird. Other species, such as Dippers, profoundly bob as they walk, really looking comical to human eyes, and several species habitually flick their tails, such as Palm Warblers, phoebes and Empidonax flycatchers.

In southwestern Mississippi I was much more accustomed to seeing Louisiana Waterthrushes than Northern ones. The two species are so closely related that they can be hard to separate in the field. A good page comparing them side by side is found at http://www.hiltonpond.org/ThisWeek020515.html.

You can see the Northern Waterthrush's summer and winter distribution map, and hear its song here.

The same information is available for the Louisiana here.

On the distribution maps, notice how the Northern Waterthrush spends its winters here in the Yucatan while the Louisiana just migrates through, overwintering farther south of here.

As you might expect these days my breakfast companion doesn't sing his spring and summer song. However, he does very vigorously issue his "chink" call. At first I wondered about this but now I read that Northern Waterthrushes are territorial not only during the summer but also on their wintering grounds, where they're given to chasing off and fighting intruders!

At breakfast as the humid heat builds and builds with the rising sun and I'm surrounded by the luxuriant greenness shown in the picture, I like to watch my little friend and try to imagine him as he was just a while ago, in those Alaskan, Canadian and far- northern-US swamps and bogs he favors for his summer home. Judging from the jaunty way he bobs his tail and pecks so enthusiastically in our gravel, I'd say he's not missing those climes at all.

*****

EK BALAM'S JOGGING ROAD
Here I don't have a place for my campfires but I do have a grand jogging road. It's paved, about 1-1/3 lanes wide, level and runs straight through the scrub, with rank vegetation avalanching right up to the asphalt. When I get an extra few minutes during the day I go walking on it for there's always something new to see, a newly blossoming flower, a new butterfly species, or maybe the Yucatan Jays doing something I've never seen.

It's hard to miss those Yucatan Jays, despite their being endemic just to the Yucatan. They're large, loud, flamboyantly black-and-blue birds, as shown at http://www.wam.umd.edu/~csparr/corvidweb/yucatan.htm. They seem to have a special fondness for a certain farmer's cornfield, and I bet they get their share of grain.

The first mammal I saw on the road, coming right down the middle in a mid-afternoon's heavy heat and glare, was a Gray Fox, UROCYON CINEREOARGENTEUS. Though Gray Foxes are distributed all the way through Mexico and Central America, I was surprised to see this one, especially coming down the middle of the road. I rarely saw Gray Foxes at my previous Yucatan bases. You can compare distribution maps and notes on behavior of the Red and Gray Foxes at http://www.mdc.mo.gov/nathis/mammals/fox/.

Then Friday morning as I jogged through the dawn fog what should bound across the road right before me but a White-nosed Coati, NASUA NARICA. Coatis look like they're half raccoon and half fox. You can see one at http://www.belizezoo.org/zoo/zoo/mammals/coa/coa1.html and if you click on the "video" icon you can see how they move, their long noses and two-ft-long tails giving them a streamlined look. Often you hear coatis referred to as coatimundis, but that name is best reserved for the lone, wandering, male coati.

At my previous locations I was told that coatis were common and were frequently seen, but, though I often went out looking for them near watering places at dusk and in the early evening, I never saw one. However, this Sunday morning on the road I was passed by nine Maya men heading out of town on their bikes, each man with a rifle slung across his shoulder. I asked Lee why the men would be going out in such a large group and she guessed that they were each going to their own cornfields to shoot coatis, who are eating a lot of corn these days.

*****

TROPICAL MISTLETOE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/psittaca.jpg you can see an evergreen bushy plant with reddish flowers, up in a tree. It's a mistletoe, parasitic just like ours in the North. The one shown, called Chak k'ewis in Maya (genus PSITTACANTHUS), is parasitizing a Chakah or Gumbo-limbo tree (Bursera simaruba) in Genesis's garden. A nice close-up of flowers and leaves of a similar Psittacanthus is to be seen here.  

Mistletoes in our eastern North American forests produce small, understated flowers, but, as the above image suggests, this Chak k'ewis is a sight to behold. Often it provides the main splash of color in an otherwise green forest wall.

Also like our northern mistletoes, Psittacanthus typically doesn't kill its tree host. However, when I was in Querétaro a couple of weeks ago I remarked to Beto that trees in the oak-pine forests there bore unusually high numbers of Psittacanthuses. Beto said that a few years ago they'd suffered a bad drought in that area and that ever since the Psittacanthuses had been proliferating, sometimes to the point of killing their tree hosts. I assume that the drought weakened many trees' immune systems, enabling Psittacanthuses to take hold on trees that earlier had been able to fend them off. Even healthy trees don't "like" having mistletoes on them, since mistletoes steal water and nutrients from them.

Here the Psittacanthuses don't appear to be overly abundant. They just add splashes of color here and there, provide nectar to butterflies and hummingbirds, and make the landscape even prettier than it already is.

*****

A BLACK-GRAINED, WOODY, CLIMBING GRASS
A common grass likely to appear along any weedy trail through the chopped-over woods here is unlike any you're likely to see in Eastern North America, except for southern Florida.

For one thing, its main stems are woody. For another, the grass is almost like a vine the way it climbs into trees or at least scrambles over them, sometimes for fifteen feet or more. Finally, mature, grain- filled florets, or flowers, are spherical and BLACK. If you don't believe it, look at my snapshot at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/lasiacis.jpg where you can see black, grain-filled florets mingled with yellow-green immature ones.

This grass, sometimes known as Wild Bamboo, is a member of the tropical genus LASIACIS, and I'm guessing that it's LASIACIS DIVARICATA because that species appears to be the most common of several species occurring here. It's found in southern Florida, the West Indies, and from central Mexico through tropical America to northern Argentina.

Birds and possibly rodents eat and disperse the grains, plus the stems root wherever they touch the ground and are covered by leaf litter. The stems produce new sprouts whenever they're cut or damaged. In other words, this is a tough grass. It needs to be tough because it's often browsed by horses and cattle.

Also, I can't tell you the times I've been walking through the forest and got its tough stems caught between my legs, and stumbled or fallen!

*****

THATCHING A ROOF WITH HUANO
As I type this, on the ground across the one-lane road from Genesis's entrance, you can see this: http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/huano.jpg.

What's portreyed there is a number of fan-palm fronds drying on the ground so that later they can be artfully twisted and bent, and arrayed upon wooden poles in a way that they form part of a thatched roof. All the roofs I've seen at Genesis so far are thatched, including my own room's.

Among other things this means that each day there's a bit more gecko poop on the beds and floor, for the thatch provides wonderful gecko habitat. Geckos are encouraged here, however, since they keep down the bugs and other critters. Also, one just has to like thatched roofs since they are organic, sustainable, and providing them and putting them together provides employment for the locals, helping them stay at home instead of leaving to work at Cancún or the US, which too often is the case.

Anyway, you can see the undersurface of a finished roof (the one over Genesis's dining hall) at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/huano2.jpg.

You can see the palms producing the fronds at http://www.rarepalmseeds.com/pix/SabYap.shtml.

Locally the palms providing the thatch are called "Huano." In English they're known as Bay Palmetto and Thatch Palm. Best I can figure out, they're SABAL YAPA in Latin.

*****

ALMOST A POINSETTIA
A common, 18-inch high herb blossoming nowadays is the "Wild Poinsettia," EUPHORBIA CYATHOPHORA. You can see a snapshot of one I took along a nearby trail at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/poinsett.jpg.

You can see in that picture that the plant merely hints at the gaudy, red-bracted item people up North buy at Christmas. In fact, the potted Poinsettias people buy are horticulturally enhanced plants derived from a different species of the same genus. They come from Euphorbia pulcherrima, a semi-woody, shrubby wild specimen of which you can see at http://www.herbario.com.br/dataherb10/1612pot11.htm.

Above I referred to the "red-bracted item" instead of "red-flowered item" because the Poinsettia's red parts are not parts of flowers, but rather modified leaves, or bracts. The actual flowers are tiny things with a surreal anatomy. One bizarre thing about them is that instead of producing the female part, the pistil, in the blossom's center, like a decent flower, it places it on something like a slender pole and hangs it outside the blossom. In my snapshot, the pale green, roundish things are the pistils hanging outside the flowers, the flowers being much smaller and hidden below the pistils.

So, what we have here is a genus that during its evolution into various species seems to have hit on the red-bracted theme, and it experimented with more than one species before it came up with one with really spectacular red bracts. The one in my snapshot is sort of an "early effort."

You might enjoy "The History of the Poinsettia" at http://www.ecke.com/HTML/h_corp/corp_joelp.html.

*****

BALCHÉ, THE SACRED BREW
One of the most striking plants flowering now in Genesis's garden and on the land as well is a much- spreading small tree with glossy, compound leaves reminiscent of Wisteria leaves, and bearing upright racemes of purple, Bean-Family flowers. It's the Balché, genus LONCHOCARPUS. From the bark of this handsome tree, and some other species of the same genus, the Maya have for centuries brewed their slightly fermented, rather bitter "beer," also known as balché.

When I saw the tree I asked Pedro, one of Genesis's workers, whether farmers here still use the drink balché when seeking the Creator's favor upon establishing a new cornfield. Balché is mentioned in ancient Maya texts.

"They do," Pedro replied, "plus they offer it when asking for rain, too."

I'd figured this to be the case, since balché sometimes was offered at cornfield dedications near Telchac Pueblo, where I was last winter, and Ek Balam is far more traditional than there. Still, this information set me to thinking.

For, traditionally, the cornfields where balché is offered lie at the very center of Maya society. When Miguel Asturias received his 1967 Nobel Prize for Literature for writing about Guatemala's Maya during a time of social strife, the name of his book was "Hombres de Maíz" -- "Men of Corn." The traditional importance of corn to the Maya can't be overstated.

Yet, cornfields here, as at Telchac Pueblo, are being abandoned by the Maya. For one thing, NAFTA has caused cheap US corn products to flood the Mexican market, making it economically unfeasible for small farmers to plant it.

Still, how can it be reconciled that on the one hand the Maya here still consecrate their cornfields with balché, yet on the other simply abandon their fields, choosing instead to live new kinds of lives not centered around corn?

Lee, Genesis's owner, has attended several ceremonies in which balché was offered. First, it surprises me that she was permitted to attend because traditionally women were strictly forbidden to be present at such ceremonies, lest they pollute matters. Also, she saw that when the ceremony was over the men abandoned a large amount of balché at the field. She asked why the men didn't take it home with them.

"The men would be ashamed to be seen carrying it with them," someone explained.

What awful and strange tensions must occupy these Maya minds as old ways are pushed aside -- as radios blare Spanish hip-hop rap "music" from huts with thatch roofs and stick walls, which is happening across the road as I type these very words.

What a thing that so few Maya appear to be finding a Middle Path between, on the one hand, doggedly fulfilling the ancient rites, and, on the other, simply walking away from some of the most precious features of traditional Maya life.

I think that here we are touching on a feature of basic human behavior. That is, especially when under stress, humans tend to veer from one extreme to another instead of seeking and following the sustainable Middle Path.

What will be the impact of this feature of human nature on the fight to save Life on Earth from human abuse -- as we gyrate between mindless obedience to conservative authority, and the various social equivalents of undisciplined, too-often-violent hip-hop rap...?

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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