JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Diego Nuñez's office above
Restaurante "Isla Contoy," Río Lagartos, Yucatán, MÉXICO

November 6, 2006

ACHIOTE
A bush or small tree currently flowering prettily next to people's huts in Ek Balam is a native tropical-American one considered desirable by so many cultures that now it's planted nearly throughout the world's tropics. In Spanish it's known as Achiote and in English as Annato. It's BIXA ORELLANA, of the Bixa Family, sometimes called "The Lipstick Tree Family." See my picture of the plant at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/achiote.jpg.

In that picture the reddish, soft-spined fruits next to the two-inch-wide white flower are immature. In a few weeks, however, you'll be able to crack the pods open and see why the tree is sometimes called Lipstick Tree: Inside will be numerous small, fleshy seeds about 1/5th across covered with bright, red-orange pulp. The garish pulp in which the seeds are embedded is wonderful stuff.

First, dye obtained from the pulp is used all over the world for coloring rice, cheeses, soft drinks, oil, butter, and soup. It's used in some regions to dye textiles and in some cultures people dye their hair and bodies with it for cosmetic reasons, and to repel insects and protect them from sunburn. It was used as a warpaint by many native Americans. The seeds are given to bulls to make them aggressive for bullfights and are taken by some indigenous people as an aphrodisiac. You can read about many more uses at http://www.virtualherbarium.org/gl/bixa/bixaorellana.htm.

You can see what "Annatto Seed Paste" looks like sold commercially ($4.75 for a 14-oz package) at http://www.mexgrocer.com/3150.html.

*****

JABIN, JABIM, FISH-POISON TREE
Both at my earlier Yucatan locations and at Ek Balam one of the most common and conspicuous trees in the hacked- over, scrubby, weedy forest is what they called Jabim where I was earlier, Jabin here, and in English is often called such things as Fish-poison Tree, Fish Fuddle and Jamaican Dogwood. It's PISCIDIA PISCIPULA, a member of the Bean Family, with pinnately compound leaves very like ash-tree leaves, except that they arise singly at the stem nodes (are alternate, not opposite like ash). You can see my picture of a Jabin leaf and an enlarging stem shoot at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/jabin.jpg.

The "Fish-poison" and "Fish Fuddle" names point to one of the tree's most striking features: Its bark can be ground up, sprinkled into a pool of fishy water, and the fish will rise to the top, gasping for air, and then can be captured. Among the chemicals causing this paralysis are some known as rotenones. These chemicals affect cold- blooded creatures only, so people can eat stymied fish without problems.

As so often is the case, chemicals problematic in one dosage or environment are medicinal in another. One site says that the chemicals in Jabin are "sedative, anodyne, analgesic, antitussive, spasmolytic, anti-inflammatory." Jabin extracts can be used for "neuralgia, migraine, toothache, insomnia, spasmodic dysmenorrhoea. Specifically indicated in insomnia due to neuralgia or nervous tension." More info like this can be found at http://www.purplesage.org.uk/profiles/jamaicadogwood.htm.

Here in interior northern Yucatan where drainage is subterranean we don't have rivers, streams or lakes, so the Maya I've talked to have no idea about Jabin's fish- fuddling properties. What they do know is that the tree's heartwood is remarkably hard. I can attest to that, for I've certainly bent my share of nails trying to hammer it. Most of the time when I ask what kind of wood could possibly be so hard, the reply is "Jabin."

*****

TROPICAL ALMOND TREE
Throughout the world's tropics when you see a street tree with big, blackjack-shaped leaves and the branches are arranged so that they appear to be in layers separated from one another by shadowy space, a good bet is that it's the Tropical Almond, TERMINALIA CATAPPA, a member of the mostly tropical Combretum Family. Though common throughout tropical Mexico, including next to huts in Ek Balam, the species originally is from Madagascar, Malaya and the East Indies.

You can the layered branches on a tree near Genesis at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/almond-t.jpg.

There's a close-up of leaves and 2-in-long "almonds" at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/almond-f.jpg.

Though the "almonds" look a lot like the almonds grown up North -- with a thin, leathery husk and a hard, woody "nut" inside containing an edible seed, which tastes more or less like the Northern almond, Tropical Almonds and Northern almonds are in entirely different plant families. Northern almonds are members of the Rose Family, and are very closely related to plums, cherries and peaches. Tropical Almonds are more closely related to Blackgum Trees and eucalyptuses.

Beneath the tree pictured above the ground was strewn with tropical almonds, but no one seemed interested in picking them up. One reason might be that the seed coat is pretty hard. You have to struggle a bit to get the "almond." However, the kernel is tasty and nutritious, worth knowing about when the infrastructure collapses.

*****

PA'AK & JO'OLON
The other day I was presented with the item shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/jo_olon.jpg.

I've seen many instances of caterpillars, just before they metamorphose into resting pupae, constructing protective cocoons for themselves from leaves and leaflets, which they bound together with silk. Clearly I'd had such a thing deposited into my hand. This cocoon, however, was especially neatly done, at the top sealed with a flat leaflet like a tin can with a lid.

I asked Teri, one of the Maya workers at Genesis Retreat in Ek Balam, what she knew about it. She told me that in Maya the name for the green leaflet casing was Pa'ak, and the name for the creature inside the cocoon was Jo'olon. I referred to the creature inside as a worm, or "gusano," but she insisted that it was like a bee, "una abeja." Amazingly, the name Pa'ak appeared to be a special word just for the leaf cocoon of this particular insect pupa, and no other.

Teri also told me that the bee-like thing inside was medicinal -- that it was fed to children to cure fear.

I tried to determine what kind of fear eating the creature cured but she said it's just fear, "susto." Once when I was among Nahuatl-speaking people in the central Mexican highlands a little girl developed what they called "susto," normally translated as "fear." A healer, or "curandera," was summoned. She first shook fragrant herbs, mostly mints, all around the little girl until the whole area became intensely fragrant, and then she went through quite a routine in order to get the little girl's shadow released from beneath the tree that had fallen on it. I asked what kind of shadow it was but could only ascertain that it wasn't a sun-shadow, but rather a spirit shadow we all have, and if that shadow gets stuck someplace we're in trouble. This shadow business apparently has nothing to do with our Jo'olon, but it does make me careful about accepting blindly that the fear Teri is speaking of is the fear we northerners conceive of.

These Maya folks are wonderful, friendly, soft-spoken and hard working, but I don't make the mistake in thinking that I understand the mental world they live in, not in the least.

*****

FROM GENESIS RETREAT TO RÍO LAGARTOS
With my work at Genesis finished, last Wednesday I packed up my backpack, thanked Lee the compound's proprietress for her wonderful hospitality and friendship, and set off hiking northward along my jogging road. What a blast that as I left town, inside a thatch-roofed hut with stick walls, someone was playing Bizet's Theme from Carmen, so I went down the road for a long time whistling that.

By mid morning it was 86°, very humid, and it looked and smelled like rain. Clouds were jagged, dark and threatening, and the wind was up. It was clear there'd be storms before the day was over, but it felt so good being on the road again heading into the unknown that I didn't care -- in fact could only think how nice it'd be that night with raindrops from wet leaves randomly tapping on my tent.

I carried lots of books in an extra suitcase so my load was heavy. By mid afternoon I was soaked with sweat, my muscles ached, and I couldn't resist taking a siesta beneath a certain tree whose dark shadows puddled on my hardly-every-traveled, one-lane gravel trail through the scrub. Leaning against my backpack piled in the middle of the road I snoozed gloriously.

Cold raindrops hitting my face awoke me. I could hear rain coming through the woods and in the sky above me was one mean-looking darkness, with a big blurred spot indicating heavy rain coming my way. I had just enough time to cover my backpack and suitcase with a poncho, and then I stood in the rain just letting it do what it wanted.

Cecropias on their slender trunks lashed in the wind, their umbrella-silhouettes gyrating amidst driving sheets of white rain. The temperature must have dropped 20° in 30 seconds. What a rambunctious symphony I'd awakened to. How sweet the rain running down my face, down my back, into my boots.

It stopped raining just long enough for me to find a spot in the woods for the tent. I set it up with endemic Yucatan Jays razzing me from just a few feet away, got inside, ate a few oily tostados and by then darkness was coming on and crickets were singing in the returning rain.

What a night of blackness and profound sleep that was.

The next day I reached the end of the trail, caught a bus north, and ended up in Río Lagartos, the main town in the 150,000-acre (60,348 hectares) Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Note that the town's name begins with "Río," which means river, while the biosphere's name begins with "Ría," which means "estuary." The reserve is famous as the most important of all flamingo nesting grounds, and as an overwintering site for an enormous number of migrant waterfowl. The town is a fishing village occupying a small peninsula jutting into the half-mile-across, salty estuary separating the mainland from a 50- mile-long, slender, mangrove-encrusted barrier island. You can get a fix on the area at http://www.riolagartosexpeditions.com/diego/.

I arrive in town at the end of a cloudburst. About half the streets are flooded with ankle-deep and deeper water, so kids on bikes are having a field day splashing through them. I give up trying to keep my boots dry and just wade down their centers. Diego Nuñez, a self-taught birder- extraordinaire and ecotour guide is expecting me. He leads me to my room, which also is flooded, but it can be dried out.

My task here is to help Diego develop ecotour infrastructure. I'm to work with him and his cooperative of ecotour guides, all local fishermen who take boatloads of visitors into the mangroves, the main attraction being the flamingos.

Thus begins my current adventure.

*****

A WALK AROUND RÍO LAGARTOS
On the southeastern side of town mangrove swamp comes right up to the corner of the last building. The swamp looks ragged, with lots of dead stumps and snags. That's the result of Hurricane Isidore's 2002 visit. I asked Diego how a hurricane could damage tough plants so well adapted to submergence in salt water and he jumped from our table at the Restaurante "Isla Contoy" and showed how high on the walls Isidore's water got, with the family huddled on the building's second story, and he showed with goggling eyes and rotating arms how water currents scoured and twisted and churned until all leaves, all buds, all soft branches were torn away, then days-long winds blew hot salt-spray encrusting the black snags with thick gray salt, for days and days... You can see what the mangroves are like four years later, with the afternoon storm prettily looming in the south at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061106m.jpg.

From there on the southeast side of Río Lagartos you can look back across a curve in the shoreline and see the eastern side of the town's peninsula. Note how low and strung-out the town is. Those are overwintering Royal Terns in the foreground, their heads pointed into the wind: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061106t.jpg.

Nowadays boats here are equipped with long bamboo poles both fore and aft, as you can see in a pretty picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061106b.jpg. The explanation for the poles is that currently it's octopus season, and everyone is fishing for octopi. The way it works is that you tie a crab to a string and affix the string to the bamboo pole. Each pole has four crab-ended strings hanging from it. At sea the fisherman watches the strings. When one goes taut, then probably an octopus has claimed a crab. Pull on the string, the octopus thinks the crab is getting way, and renews his efforts to hang on. In such a way, without a hook, the fisherman pulls in his octopus. This area exports lots of octopi to Japan and other countries. I can tell you that octopi are quite majestic in the water but when they are all puddled in a bucket or plastic bag, like a lot of curdled, brown Jello, they look pretty pathetic.

Río Lagartos itself is as colorful, odoriferous and laid-back as it can be. If you don't believe the colorful and laid-back parts just look at the picture with a dog sunning on some blue steps (Again, thanks to Jerry in Mississippi for bestowing a digital camera on me) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061106d.jpg.

My daily runs are important to me, so I'm pleased to show you what a nice jogging road I have. Each morning as the sky is getting a bit milky with the day's first light I jog along the broad seaside boulevard at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061106j.jpg.

Finally, here's a nice, moody picture of the cemetary down at the end of the street I'm staying on: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061106c.jpg

*****

TWO MINDS FOR THE ROAD
Wednesday as I set myself upon Ek Balam's north-running road toward anxious thunderheads and through wet-choking perfumes of flowers, crushed grass and mud my head swam in two oceans.

First, the ocean of being rootless, of being unsure exactly where I was going, no idea where I'd sleep that night, feeling detached from all the world's sanctioned currents, a human for whom humanity has no definite use or pressing concern.

Second, I was feeling the seed in my brain that lately has been hardening and composing itself more beautifully day by day, the thing hinted at by this clumsy and deficient notion: That all us living things are nerve endings for the Creator, who, through what we feel and experience, explores and discovers Her own worth and beauty. And I am more than happy, for Her and myself as well, to FEEL what's at hand.

Suspended in the weblike tension between these two headsets I went onto that road with salty sweat stinging my eyes and I found myself exulting in heat, sweat and sting. After some hours my body ached from the heavy load and I found myself inordinately pleased with having a body robust enough to feel and endure it.

My mind, lonely and detached beneath a sky about to rain horizon to horizon and me with no shelter at hand, soared like a spaceship halfway to the Universe's edge, everything around seen by me for the first time and I was filled with the sense of all things evolving, coming together, realizing itself before my very eyes.

My mind glided, beholding, FEELING for the Creator, feeding what I saw and felt with great gusto into the Universal Central Nervous System, helped along by silent prayers of thanks, thanks for the boiling sky, thanks for the rampant green growth and its photosynthetic poetry, the humid and perfumed air, the vultures in the sky, the heat, the unexpected nice touch of Bizet's Carmen Theme from a thatch-roofed hut, and this body that just goes on and on, so far...

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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