JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve Headquarters in
Jalpan, Querétaro, MÉXICO

January 19, 2007

"BIZNAGA" CACTUS
Last Friday four professors from Cuernavaca arrived with botany students and I became their botanical guide until Sunday afternoon. For me the star destination was 8500- ft-high (2600 m) Cuatro Palos (meaning "Four Trees"). Up there the light is crystalline and sharp, the view majestic, and plants and animals are especially adapted for edge-of-world conditions. One view can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070119vw.jpg.

To reach the main overlook point you pass through a certain ridgetop oak forest. On this chilly, windswept, limestone ridge the oaks are gnarly and widely spaced, and the trees' black trunks are encrusted with moss and lichens. Despite their being small trees they're old, exquisitely adapted for their harsh environment, and their even spacing upon the airy slope indicates that they're in equilibrium with it. In the sharp sunlight one feels the magic of coming to friendly terms with harshness. Its like visiting a community of old classical poets, each off in his own little world, each absorbed in his own place and time, but part of a community nonetheless. You can see students on the trail before me, and determine if you also can sense the place's magic, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070119ok.jpg.

At the rocky, exposed tip of the limestone ridge several fabulous plants found a foothold. One little gem was a small, oval, sublimely spiny and flowering cactus, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070119ec.jpg.

The locals gave the name of this cactus as Biznaga. But I've heard that name many times before. In fact, Mexicans call any roundish, very spiny cactus Biznaga. An unflowering Mammilaria growing nearby with a completely different body structure (composed of "nipples" instead of "ribs" like our flowering one) also was called Biznaga. We were told about waist-high, barrel-shaped cacti with foot-long spines living down lower in the dry valley and they also were Biznagas. There couldn't have been a better demonstration to the students of the value of scientific names, for if you're trying to determine whether a species is rare or not, how can you even talk about it if everything is called "Biznaga"?

We set ourselves down next to the "Biznaga" and began "keying it out," using a technical dichotomous key. Right off, the key asked whether glochids were present. Remember that glochids are tiny spines at the base of big spines. Our specimen had no glochids. Other important features of this species were that its body surface was folded into thin, waferlike, vertical, sinuous ribs atop which the spines arose, and the flowers sprouted from the cactus's top-center, not from along its sides.

Our cactus turned out to be a member of the genus Stenocactus, which is endemic to Mexico. It was STENOCACTUS CRISPATUS. Apparently the species has no common name because it's not commonly known, but plant taxonomists sure have kicked it around, giving it one scientific name after another. I count about thirty scientific names it's been known as.

*****

NOLINA
At the cliff's edge the most eye-catching plant looked like a very bushy-topped palm, or maybe a yucca. However, it was one of the "bear grasses," NOLINA PARVIFLORA, and you can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070119no.jpg.

Apparently this species grows much larger than our rock- ledge ones, and their trunks can branch. You can see a spectacular, branched-trunk one and read more about it at http://www.rarepalmseeds.com/pix/NolPar.shtml.

These trunked nolinas look so much like tree-yuccas, such as the Joshua Tree, that you wonder what's the difference. When they're flowering, the differences are great. Yuccas produce fairly large, white flowers while nolina blossoms are much smaller. Also, unlike most agaves and yuccas, nolinas are dioecious -- producing male flowers on one plant and female flowers on another. You can get a good introduction, with pictures, to the world of nolinas and their close relatives at http://www.succulent-plant.com/nolina.html.

That page's taxonomy is a little out of date. Genetic sequencing now places nolinas into a newly constituted family, the Ruscaceae, or Lily-of-the-valley Family. In fact, once you think about it, individual nolina flowers do look a lot like Lily-of-the-valley flowers, though the plant bodies, at least at first glance, are completely dissimilar. This is another example of flowers reflecting much better than plant bodies a plant's genetic relationships.

*****

SWEET MAGUEY HEART
Passage to and from the lookout point took us through a maguey plantation. Remember that magueys are any of several agaves from which the alcoholic pulque, mezcal and tequila drinks are made. On our return trip a fellow was waiting for us with sweet slices of maguey heart, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070119ma.jpg.

When you want to make pulque or the other drinks you begin by cutting away a maguey's heart so that a hole is formed where the center leaves arose. The maguey's sweet sap slowly fills the hole, then is removed and fermented. Of course, removing a maguey's heart kills the plant.

The removed spongy pith is full of sweet sap and can be chewed just like sugarcane stems. The picture shows a student digging into her purse to pay ten pesos, about 90 cents, for her slice, and so did several others. The fellow made a few dollars out of us that day. As I followed the students downslope I kept seeing white balls of what looked like chewed-up burlap, which was almost what it was. You take a bite of the pith, chew it until the sweetness is gone, and spit it out. The students loved it.

By the way, in the picture, in the background between the student and the man you can see a smallish maguey plant not yet with its heart cut out.

*****

WESTERN BLUEBIRDS
Around the sunlight-dazzled, windswept, ridge-crest town of Cuatro Palos, all afternoon, Western Bluebirds glided from one maguey plant to another. In the intense light they looked all-black, but sometimes when one turned just right you could catch a glimpse of chestnut on the chest and sometimes even see a glimmer of blue. However, it wasn't necessary to see the birds' colors to know them, for bluebirds have that special, low-swooping, soft-touch manner of flying from one perch to another, or from a perch onto the ground for a quick snack, and there among the heights their flight seemed even more distinctive.

Western Bluebirds look a lot like their Eastern counterparts, just with less rustiness on their chests, and their throats are blue, not rusty as with the Easterns. Up north the two species occupy different sides of the continent but down here the species mingle in the uplands, occupying similar habitats. It's interesting that both species avoid the hot, humid lowlands.

At this time of year the birds' hormonal levels are low so they're not territorial and often appear in small groups. Both the Eastern and Western species are permanent residents here, though during the winter their numbers may be augmented by migrants from the north. The Westerns seem most common here, however. Well, their scientific name is SIALIA MEXICANA, after all.

The Mountain Bluebird, with a paler, sky-blue color, also occurs in the northern Mexican uplands, but only as a winter migrant.

*****

JULIO'S HUMMINGBIRD T-SHIRT
Someone someplace is creating nice graphics for Sierra Gorda Reserve. You can see what I mean on the T-shirt worn by my gleeful friend Julio here: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070119ju.jpg.

In the T-shirt's caption, "Colibríes de la Sierra Gorda," the word "Colibríes" means "Hummingbirds." I have trouble identifying the species portrayed on Julio's T-shirt but we do have a good hummingbird selection here. Fourteen species are listed for the reserve.

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ANGEL'S TRUMPETS
The folks at Cuatro Palos are pretty poor and you can tell from the houses that life there can be grim, especially when it's cold and wet. One fellow who looked like he could blow away at any moment came and sat by me and said, "Ah, señor, yes, it's true, the view is beautiful, but let me tell you, sometimes it's hard here, very hard. You who come on sunny days like this and then leave, you wouldn't believe how it is sometimes... "

But, as always, flowers around people's houses were magnificent. Mexicans just need their plants. Unlike below in warmer territory, many plants at Cuatro Palos were potted, especially red-flowered geraniums, which were set up against houses so the sun can bake them.

One plant really putting on a show there was eiirws in the ground, however. It was a bush or small tree maybe ten feet tall, and you can see one of its 8-inch blossoms at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070119da.jpg.

In that picture you may recognize the plant as Angel's Trumpet, for it's often planted ornamentally in the US South. The plant is DATURA ARBOREA, or BRUGMANSIA ARBOREA, depending on your expert, a member of the Nightshade Family (tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco). The species is originally from the Peruvian Andes but now is spread worldwide through the tropics and subtropics, thanks to its striking blossoms.

In fact, the species has had its genes juggled by so many gardeners and horticulturalists for so long that it's fractured into any number of varieties. The one in the photo is a double-flowered variant. You can see a second corolla or a kind of crown emerging from the center of the main flower. The wild form just has a simple tubular corolla.

Since one of the plant's genus names is Datura, and Datura is the Jimsonweed genus -- you may remember Carlos Castinada's Don Juan making his hallucinogenic potions with Datura -- you might guess that Angel's Trumpet has other than angelic properties. On the Internet I find one report of a German youth who under the influence of Angel Trumpet cut off his penis. Elsewhere I read about a poisoning of someone who simply touched an Angel's Trumpet leaf. People into tripping out shouldn't fool with the Daturas.

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TORTILLA PRICES GOING UP
Protests are breaking out across Mexico because tortilla prices are going up drastically -- up to 400% during recent months. Read about the whole situation here.  

Mexicans on the average eat ten tortillas a day. Of course, some eat no tortillas and some eat a lot more than ten, but that's the average, so this price-hike hurts a lot of people.

There's evidence that politics and intentional manipulation by a few big producers is behind it all. That's not surprising because since NAFTA took effect (NAFTA is the agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada for lowering trade barriers among themselves), Mexico has lost 30% of its agricultural jobs. This has resulted in many more rural Mexicans going north, legally and illegally, for jobs.

It also means that a lot of pressure has been taken off the Mexican landscape. Here in Querétaro many mountain slopes are revegetating after cornfields on them were abandoned.

Thus there are good effects and bad effects, depending on where you are and what you want.

This is a classic example of globalization causing mass displacement of people, and unforeseen effects on nature. Abandoned mountain slopes here translate to more marginal land in the US being converted to cornfields to feed Mexicans their tortillas, and also more pesticide runoff into the Mississippi River, and thus a larger "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. Higher tortilla prices here means lost income for south-Louisiana fishermen, and a higher cancer rate for fish-eaters.

I'm against globalization as it's practiced now. It's no good when a whole region depends on someplace far away to produce its food. Transporting the food causes pollution. Local farmworkers lose jobs, and the whole region becomes vulnerable to political vagaries and market manipulation.

Who gave permission for 30% of Mexican farmworkers to lose their jobs in the name of the "Free Market," which right now seems to be making a very few people very rich while at the same time making average folks pay 400% more for their ten tortillas each day? Why do we automatically accept that a "Free Market" is good, but just let average families deal with the consequences any way they can, IF they can?

*****

HOW I MET SALLY-D
In 1996 I made a birding trip through Mexico from Juárez on the northern border with the US, across sand-dune deserts, up volcanoes, through the mountains, all the way through Chiapas near the Guatemalan border, and that story, with some of my own bird drawings, is online at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexbirds/index.htm.

About a month ago a fellow wrote to me because he'd read my chapter about crossing Oaxaca's Sierra Mazateca and passing through the town of Huautla de Jiménez. That's where a special kind of sage grows, he told me, a real pretty one, SALVIA DIVINORUM, and he had greenhouses and wanted to grow it. Would I please go back to Huautla, collect some seeds and send them to him, and he'd pay me real well.

It'd been hard getting to Huautla and the people there hadn't struck me as very welcoming. In fact, very unlike nearly every other Mexican village I've been in, I got the distinct impression that Huautla's folks wanted me out of town fast. Drugs, I assumed. I did leave and I told the fellow with the greenhouses that I didn't want to go back for any sage.

The man became so persistent about the project that I did some Googling. Turns out that Salvia divinorum is big business now in the hallucinogenic trade, and is known as Sally-D on the streets. Salvia divinorum traditionally was used ceremonially by the Mazatec people. Apparently it no longer grows in the wild as a self-reproducing species. It's found only in a few Mazatec gardens, and some seeds or sprouts might be worth quite a bit. In some US states it's illegal.

It sort of rubs me the wrong way that, after being out of economic circulation for so long, when a money-making offer finally comes my way it's inviting me to get into the drug business. I'm against drugs -- most legal ones and all "mind-expanding ones."

The thing I have against mind-altering drugs is that they distort the whole beauty/spirituality scene. The user feels as if he or she is having deep insights even though there's no new information developed. Users feel artful without having mastered any art. I've been around enough tripping people who thought they were participating in something profound to know that they weren't being profound at all -- were, in fact, indulging in the grossest mediocrity. They were just reacting to sensations inside their own heads and those sensations distorted reality while making the users feel good about themselves.

How does this line of discussion relate to the war to save Life on Earth? It's relevant because it's hard enough to get a fix on reality even when your head is clear. When drugs are added to the mix it becomes even much harder, maybe impossible. And to fight this war to protect Life on Earth, we need to have clear minds, know what the problems are, and be smart enough to come up with solutions.

Also, I regard it as an affront to the Universal Creative Force when someone thinks they need drugs to feel in awe of something or just to feel good, instead of merely looking around and seeing the grandness of Nature right before them.

Aren't the stars enough to blow the mind, or grass in the lawn? Isn't the stuff of subatomic physics mind- stretching enough? Isn't the fact that there are trees, rocks, music, love, and evolution enough to keep us agog, inspired and reverential before the Universal Creative Force for a lifetime?

That guy wanting me to sneak some Sally-D seeds to him just didn't know who I am, and how hard I've worked to get my head so that I can see things relatively clearly.

No way Sally-D is going to screw up this life.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim