JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

Issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve Headquarters in
Jalpan, Querétaro, MÉXICO

February 9, 2007

PULQUE BREAD
A neat thing about my new residence in the Reserve's entrance-road guardhouse is that I have wireless Internet connection there. I can listen to online radio, especially National Public Radio with its fine news programs and classical music. Therefore, I know what kind of weather North America has endured this last week.

Here it's also been unusually wet and chilly. In fact, last Saturday Roberto and I made the two hour trip up to the trailhead to high-elevation La Trinidad, but when we got there it was so rainy we decided against the climb. We had cold rain for three nights, which is pretty unusual for this time of year.

The trip to La Trinidad wasn't a total loss, however. On the way there we passed through a little town where a certain lady operates a roadside stand at which you can be served hot atole made from finely ground sunflower seeds. It's a wonderful, high-energy drink, and we always have some when we pass through that town. Last Saturday the lady also had on her shelf a basket of "pan de pulque," or "pulque bread," pulque being the traditional, slightly fermented drink people here produce from maguey's sweet sap, maguey being a giant, agave-like plant. In pulque bread, pulque is used less for its taste than for the fermenting organisms it contributes to the bread batter. A little pulque is less expensive and less troublesome than dealing with baker's yeast. Pulque's fermentation microorganisms cause the bread to rise by breaking down the batter's sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide, the later being a gas that forms bubbles in the bread, making it light. The fermentation process's simplified formula is:

C6H12O6 --> 2 C2H5OH + 2 CO2
or
sugar --> ethanol plus carbon dioxide gas

Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol, is the intoxicating ingredient in alcoholic drinks, as well as the product that may become the main fuel for future cars. An interesting point is that during the fermentation process if oxygen gets to the ethanol it's oxidized to acetic acid, which is vinegar. Also, in the presence of lots of oxygen, yeast undergoes aerobic respiration to produce just carbon dioxide and water, without producing ethanol in the first place. A much more detailed description of fermentation can be accessed at http://www.meadmadecomplicated.org/science/fermentation.html.

Anyway, I asked around where I could buy some pulque but no one would sell it to someone they didn't know. Some tell me it's illegal to sell it here, though the issue seems to be debatable. Whatever the case, finally I asked Don Gonzalo, the reserve's gardener, about it, he got a big smile on his face, and first thing Thursday morning I was met by a beaming Don Gonzalo who proudly produced from his shoulder bag a two-liter (half gallon) plastic Coca-Cola bottle filled with milky, foamy pulque. It cost about $1.40 US.

Spume bubbled from around the rim of the bottle's cap as, inside, the bottle's fermenting organisms worked and worked. In my hut I immediately poured wheat flour into a bowl, added a mixture that was one-fourth pulque and three-fourths water, and made a doughy mass which I pressed into the oiled, concave bottom of my solar-oven bowl. Into the dough's concavity I dropped the contents of two eggs, sprinkled them with shredded cabbage and chopped cilantro, set up my solar oven, and put the glass dish with the dough and eggs inside it into the oven, and then waited.

The only problem was that during the baking process Don Gonzalo and his helper worked near my solar oven and when the odor of baking bread and frying eggs drifted across the area around noon, it drove them crazy. The midday meal-siesta here begins around 2 PM, so for a while they had a hard time focusing on their hammering and sawing.

Poor people. But what a meal that was for me. The ethanol, being volatile, evaporated leaving not a trace of the somewhat bitter pulque flavor. It was just good, wholesome, solar-baked food, the bread nice and spongy because of the carbon-dioxide bubbles resulting from the fermentation, and upon eating my meal I felt satisfied in a rainbow of ways.

While typing the above report it occurred to me that it'd be grand to provide a picture of Don Gonzalo holding the bottle of pulque he brought me. I spoke to him about the matter, he got that big smile on his face, went and retrieved a plastic glass from his shoulder bag, poured himself a drink, took the bottle, and then posed beneath a Sweet Acacia tree taking a big swig in the interest of your, the reader's, edification. The only thing missing from the resulting image is the sound of the Don's laughing when he wasn't swigging. That picture resides at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070209gz.jpg.

*****

BIRDS AROUND THE RESERVOIR
Usually my traditional Christmas bird-walks give you a good idea about my current area's most common, easy-to- see birds, the ones living there when it's neither breeding season nor time for migration. However, this year on Christmas Day I was in a specialized high- elevation environment and my birdlist wasn't at all representative of the species I see every day. Therefore, last Sunday I walked around Jalpan's reservoir, taking about five hours, listing the birds so you can get a fix on what species are commonly seen here.

It wasn't a good birding day. It'd rained all night, unusual for the heart of the dry season, and all morning it was so dark, misty and drizzly that I missed several species just because I couldn't see their colors. When I started out at 8 AM it was 60°, dropped to 55° when I climbed upslope into the cloud-fog, and was 60° again when I returned five hours later.

Usually I list birds as I see them, so you can enjoy watching how the bird-species mix changes as I walk through one habitat after another. However, this time all the birds came from the lake's edge where scrub and disturbed areas met the water. When I climbed the slope to get to the road on the lake's other side it was so foggy and drizzly that birds weren't too evident and I saw nothing different. Therefore, the following list is "phylogenetic" -- theoretically ancient bird-types coming first, newly evolved species coming last -- the way most field guides represent them. This way, if you want to fill your head with pretty colors, interesting designs and miscellaneous bird-thoughts, you can look up the following species in your own guide to North American birds, starting at the front of your field guide and working toward the end.

  1. Neotropic Cormorant, 2 on a snag in shallow water
  2. Great Blue Heron, like a statue at water's edge
  3. Snowy Egret, 2 atop tree at water's edge
  4. Cattle Egret, 2, each riding a cow's back
  5. Wood Stork, stalking along water's edge
  6. Blue-winged Teal, ±15 noodling weeds at water's edge
  7. American Kestrel, atop a maguey's dead flower stalk
  8. American Coot, 14 scattered, paddling independently
  9. Spotted Sandpiper, wagging tail on mud bar
  10. White-winged Dove, many flocks of 10-20 flying by
  11. Inca Dove, on ground in fallow cornfield
  12. Elegant Trogon, female snatching cherry-like fruits
  13. Golden-fronted Woodpecker, atop cement power pole
  14. Tufted Flycatcher, snatching bugs along shore
  15. Eastern Phoebe, snatching bugs along shore
  16. Social Flycatcher, 3 in different trees, one calling
  17. Violet-green Swallow, several swooping low over water
  18. Green Jay, complaining JEHRRR JEHRRR JEHRRR in scrub
  19. Ruby-crowned Kinglet, snatching gnats in scrub
  20. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, abundant in scrub everywhere
  21. Brown-backed Solitaire, beautiful crescendo call
  22. Blue Mockingbird, lustily singing from hidden perch
  23. Cedar Waxwing, ±15 high-pitched ZEEEEEing in treetops
  24. Nashville Warbler, brightly yellow, showing rusty cap
  25. Yellow-rumped Warbler, several debugging acacia fls
  26. Black-and-white Warbler, foraging on tree-trunks
  27. Wilson's Warbler, very common in scrub along shore
  28. Northern Cardinal, bright male in scrub along road
  29. Black-headed Grosbeak, nibbling cherry-like fruit
  30. Indigo Bunting, ±10 in scrub, males mottled blue
  31. Melodious Blackbird, singing in tip-top of tree
  32. Great-tailed Grackle, several loudly calling
  33. Brown-headed Cowbird, 2 in tree next to pasture

Every species in the above list is also found somewhere in the US -- though sometimes the distribution extends only a few miles north across the border. Species not found in North America do occur here, but I didn't see any. I'm not too surprised by this, since the Eastern Sierra Madres can be followed all the way north into western Texas and beyond, where they become the Rocky Mountains. In other words, no major ecological barriers block birds from flying between here and Texas.

The "star" of the above list is certainly the Elegant Trogon, sometimes known as the Coppery-tailed Trogon, its distribution extending into the US only in southeastern Arizona and extreme western Texas. The female I saw was feeding in the typical trogon manner: After quietly perching, she'd suddenly fly up to a fruit, take it into her beak as she fluttered in mid air, then let herself drop, so that her weight helped snap the fruit off the tree.

When you make any such list often you miss a few very common species and see others that are rare. It's hard to believe I saw no Pied-billed Grebes on the lake or Vermillion Flycatchers in the scrub. However, my first sighting of the Elegant Trogon at this location made up for that.

*****

PRAIRIE-CLOVER BROOM
Here you don't drink water that issues from the tap. You buy drinking water in 19- or 20-liter (5 gallon), plastic bottles that are delivered regularly in trucks or bought in stores, and returned empty when a new full bottle is needed. This is pretty standard all over Mexico. Last year in the Yucatan my bottles were delivered by my friend Tomás in a truck and cost 8 pesos (75¢). This year I walk to a tiny mom-and-pop store about three blocks away and carry the pretty heavy bottle back in my backpack. This year it costs 12 pesos, about $1.09. As I have said, prices for basic necessities here are rising drastically.

So, last Saturday I was hiking toward that store with my backpack on when an old fellow coming up the road began giving me a look-over. That happens wherever I go. Because so many people here have worked in the US, legally or illegally, and they've had so many good and bad experiences with gringos, there's a kind of love-hate feeling for us. It's just hard for a Mexican to take for granted a gringo walking a back street in a small town deep in the heart of Mexico.

The fellow called to me as we passed one another. Usually I just give a polite greeting, smile and keep going, because if I stopped for everyone who seems to want to talk I'd never get anywhere. But this man had a funny look on his face and, more interesting, was carrying an armload of stiff, straight weed-stems. I was curious about what he was going to do with those stems.

The look on his face I understood as soon as I smelled the pulque on his breath. The weed stems got more interesting the more I looked at them.

The stems bore at their tips clusters of lentil-shaped, BB-size fruits and a few purple, bean-flower blossoms. As the man spoke of how he'd once worked in California and Arkansas I squashed a fruit between my fingers and my fingers turned bright yellow. The dye wouldn't wipe off, and it was still with me the next morning. You can see exactly how it stained my hand, as exhibited on someone else's hand with a very closely related plant in Texas, at http://www.tx.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/pmc/images/lpc_4.jpg.

I figured the man had picked the stems to feed the fruits to pet pigeons or something, but to make sure I asked him.

A broom. He told me a long story about how he needed a broom so he'd gone to a certain ridge a bit outside of town, to the only place he knew of around here where this kind of plant still grows -- though it used to be common in weedy spots right here in town -- and now he was taking the stems home to make a broom. I pointed out the yellow stain on my hands and asked if the plant was ever used for making dyes. No, just makes good brooms.

I snatched some flowers and fruits so I could identify the plant back home. It turns out that the plant, which doesn't have an English name, is native from Mexico to Honduras. It's DALEA FOLIOLOSA (NOT Dalea foliosa, which has endangered status in Illinois, Tennessee and Alabama.) You can see a pressed herbarium specimen at http://fm2.fieldmuseum.org/vrrc/med/FABA-dale-foli-mex-282430.jpg.

In North America some members of the genus Dalea are known as prairie clovers, and some of those are classified as rare and endangered species. Therefore, particularly after my friend told how the plant had disappeared from around here, and after I'd seen the copious yellow dye the fruits produced, I began to suspect that we had in hand the remains of a plant that should be much respected, protected and propagated, not just picked for making brooms.

*****

MILITARY MACAWS
On Tuesday I joined a group of 18 teachers from the technical institute at San Juan del Río across the mountains to the west, serving as the group's naturalist. Our first stop was at a pretty little waterfall known as Cascada del Chuveja, in a humid valley about half an hour west of Jalpan and surrounded by high mountain peaks. The moment I stepped from our truck's cab I heard very raucous squawking from high in the sky. I could guess what I was hearing, for I'd read of this species' presence there and I'd hoped to see it. And there they were, a flock of 14, my binoculars clearly showing the large parrots' long, pointed tails. Even though they were silhouetted by the low clouds that chopped off mountaintops all around, I could see that, at least from below, they were almost entirely green. They were Military Macaws, which you can see in a Cedro tree at http://www.mangoverde.com/wbg/picpages/pic74-187-4.html.

Of course there's lots of info on the Internet about Military Macaws, mainly because they're such favored pets. Ever since the early 70s, however, I've had a knee- jerk negative reaction against macaws, or just about any big birds for that matter, being kept in cages.

Back then I was serving as naturalist on archeological tours into the Petén "Jungle" of northern Guatemala. To reach our isolated Maya ruins mostly we traveled in dugout canoes on the Usumacinta River running between Guatemala and southern Mexico. On the Usumacinta we frequently saw Scarlet Macaws, a different species with red more apparent than green. Even then the locals told us that there wasn't nearly the number of birds there used to be. The thing happening was that the locals would shoot the birds, hope the birds were only wounded and not killed, and if they were only wounded they'd try to nurse the birds back to health. Then they'd sell the birds for fifteen or twenty dollars. Of course the people who bought the macaw would then resell them to pet enthusiasts, mostly North Americans and Europeans, who'd give over a thousand dollars for them, sometimes much more. I hear now that Scarlet Macaws are seldom seen.

Pet owners always say that their birds are bred and brought up in captivity, and the vast majority probably are. However, I saw enough about macaw smuggling back then to know that the cheapest way for a backwoods person to get a macaw is to shoot it and nurse it back to health. The thriving market for macaws in the North is what fuels the whole process.

Also, in the wild I've watched a lot of parrots and macaws in their daily lives and I can tell you that few animal species appear to be as needful of social interaction than they. When you see the intimacy with which they interact in their wild flocks, you can't stand the idea of there being just one bird in any cage.

Last Wednesday I asked the señorita at the park gate if she'd like to see the birds through my binoculars. She replied that she often sees them up close, feeding in fruiting trees near the falls. Then she told me the thing that people always love to tell about macaws:

"Macaws are monogamous," she said, as she must say several times a day, "and they remain bonded for life. In flocks, you often see pairs flying so close together that their wings nearly touch."

******

LION'S EARS IN THE MOUNTAINS
Very prettily flowering in most of the small mountain towns near here these days is a six-ft-tall Mint Family member whose stiff stems bear at their tops two or more widely-spaced, baseball-size spheres of reddish-orange flowers. The plants are similar to red-blossomed Bee Balm grown in northern gardens, but these plants are much more robust. In the villages they've escaped from gardens and grow weedily along roadsides. The plants, originally from Southern Africa, are known in English as Lion's Ears and Wild Daggas. They're LEONOTIS LEONURUS, and you can see a picture of flowers from a plant at Soledad de Guadalupe at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070209le.jpg.

Don Gonzalo tells me that the plants are medicinal, but he's forgotten what they're used for. A bit of Googling reveals uses ranging from being a digestive aid to curing leprosy, to being smoked as a hallucinogenic. You can review a whole page of uses -- where it's called Wild Dagga -- at http://www.iamshaman.com/dagga/folkuse.htm.

This is such an eye-catching plant that it deserves to be planted more often, at least in southern gardens. It takes a long time to flower and seems a bit intolerant to colder climates. Several gardeners have posted comments on acquiring seeds and the plant's growing needs at http://davesgarden.com/pf/go/1048/index.html.

*****

TREE POPPIES
Another plant you can't miss while driving through the mountains is a shrub maybe 15 feet high, with large leaves so similar to oak leaves that at first you assume that the plants are indeed oaks. However, then you notice that in a very un-oaklike manner the stems end in large panicles of small fruits. You can see all this at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070209bo.jpg.

I had the hardest time figuring out what this plant was until one day I tore a leaf margin and the leaf "bled" an orangish latex. Only a small fraction of plant families produce colored latex, so that was a good clue. I'd just returned from spending the summer in Kentucky where colored-latex-bleeding poppies had grown in the gardens, but I'd never heard of a woody member of the Poppy Family. Still, I checked out the list of Poppy Family members growing in this area and, sure enough, there was a woody species, sometimes called Tree Poppy, BOCCONIA FRUTESCENS. Google soon turned up pictures of that species, which confirmed the identification.

You can see in my picture that Tree Poppies don't look anything like garden poppies. The small items borne in the inflorescence are immature capsular fruits. Flowers are small and not at all showy, though large clusters of them are conspicuous.

Tree Poppy is native from Mexico to South America, and is invading new territory. In Hawaii it's listed as a noxious weed, and there it's being realized that the species is hard to get rid of. The leaves' waxy surfaces protect it from herbicides, the plant sprouts easily from tiny parts not completely removed from the soil, birds disperse the fruits, and each plant produces very many seeds.

However, here, Tree Poppy is at home and its enemies have evolved with it. You seldom see more than an individual plant growing here and there. Leaves of the one in my picture are blotchy with colonies of parasitic fungus. Here, Tree Poppy is just an attractive element of the local flora and no one would think of it as weedy.

*****

BUSY-NESS
One of the fears I have about settling in at the Reserve is that I shall succumb to being busy all the time. Busy in the sense of tending to chores, but NOT counting as busy-ness the activities of merely thinking, or soaking up impressions, or being physically inactive while enjoying something, such as music, a memory or a pretty sky. Physically puttering or running about is what I'm calling busy-ness.

Having just enjoyed several years of consciously making sure I always had plenty of time just thinking, soaking up impressions and enjoying things, and now being able to physically putter or rush around tending to business as much as I want, I can tell you that the two approaches to life are profoundly different. When one perpetually putters or rushes about, something in the human spirit withers and dies. The habitual busy person misses a dimension of life that I insist on having.

In fact, I think that busy people are dangerous. Immersing themselves in nothing but "getting things done," they come to view the world as mechanistic. To them, reality is strung together so that when you do THIS, THAT happens. Everything makes sense, consequences properly follow actions -- but there is no room for magic, or for the spirit of things. Busy people can be religious, but not spiritual. They may become leaders and foremost in their fields without ever really reflecting much on what they're leading toward, or whether their field of activity is beneficial to Life on Earth. Yes, these kinds of people are dangerous.

I believe that in general we with Northern European genes tend to be obsessively busy. You can see how the tendency to busy-ness evolved. In northern Europe, if you sat around your cave all summer enjoying the weather, you'd die from cold in the winter and your genetic heritage would vanish. On the other hand, if you obsessively ran around picking up firewood, storing roots and such, you might make it through the next winter, thus contributing to the future gene pool. Though I was lazy enough as a kid to enjoy my share of placid times, as an adult I have had to fight hard the urge to keep busy -- busy in the puttering, running-about sense.

For my part, I intend to work harder at becoming less busy in the future. I don't want a star to glimmer without my admiring it, or a raindrop to fall without my noticing it, and thinking about it, and feeling something about that rainy day.

On the other hand, if you include thinking, reflecting and feeling as "doing something," I suppose that I'm also one of those who's never doing nothing. However, so far I haven't seen that that kind of busy-ness is harmful or in any way undesirable.

But, who knows? Maybe someday I'll decide that even that is too much activity for the enlightened existence. Maybe even that existence itself is a bit much. Yes, who knows?

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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