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

February 16, 2007

MEXICAN WATER BOTTLE GOURD
Last Friday my friend Rudolfo invited me on a trip into the mountains to check on a picnic spot being developed by the reserve. When we arrived at the piney, high- elevation site two local men were unloading reinforcement rods from an old pickup truck. The reserve tries to employ local folks for its projects, when it can, instead of contractors from far away.

As I made acquaintance with the two men I noticed something on the ground next to the still-warm ashes of their lunch campfire. It was a genuine Mexican Water Bottle Gourd being used exactly as such gourds have been utilized for centuries. It lay there as if it were a museum exhibit or something on display in a crafts shop, but it was the real thing, corncob stopper and all, holding water or maybe pulque. You can see the gourd at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070216bg.jpg.

"It keeps water cool and fresh the whole day," the owner told me, a bit flustered that a gringo would materialize there deep in the woods and make a fuss over his old water bottle.

The Mexican Water Bottle Gourd in the photo is just one of many shapes and varieties manifested by the Cucumber Family member LAGENARIA SICERARIA. Despite the name, Mexican Water Bottle Gourds aren't regarded as native Mexican plants. At http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/BODY_MV069 you can read that bottle gourds probably originated in Africa and from there spread widely, maybe by floating across seas. They made it to India where they evolved into numerous local varieties, and from India to China, Indonesia, and New Zealand. Archaeological remains show that bottle gourds were used in Egypt as early as 3500 to 3300 B.C. In Mexico remains dating from 7000 to 5500 BC have been found, and in Peru from about 10,000 BC. It's possible that the species dispersed so far because of this simple fact: Dried gourds with viable seeds can survive in seawater for at least 200 days.

In fact, bottle gourds are the only crop known to have been cultivated in pre-Columbian times in both the Old and New Worlds. I visualize Paleolithic people tramping across the Behring Strait 12,000 years ago or so, most adults with gourds strapped across their shoulders. I'll bet some of those gourds were ancestors to the one I saw last Friday.

What a pleasure it was seeing Lagenaria siceraria still serving mankind in real life.

ADDENDUM:
I'd hardly finished typing the above when I looked out the window and saw my friend Don Gonzalo, whom you'll recall brought be some pulque in a big Coke bottle last week, walking across the Reserve parking lot. He carried a Mexican Bottle Gourd he'd just plucked from a vine he'd planted along a fence several months ago. He plans to make a canteen for himself just like the one in my photo. You can see Don Gonzalo with his freshly picked gourd at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070216b2.jpg.

I showed Don Gonzalo the picture of the gourd being used by the workers and he pointed out that their gourd was well cured, while his was still green. To prepare his freshly picked gourd he'll scrape off the soft exterior, then rub it with lard to make it dark and shiny like the one in the picture.

"Then it'll keep water better than a plastic bottle," he assured me with his usual big smile. "The water stays fresh and cool all day long... "

Just like the guys up in the pine zone had said.

*****

GLOWING POLYPODY & LARRY'S MUSHROOM
Meeting the bottle-gourd must have put me into a sort of sappy mood because now everything I saw in that high- elevation piney woods struck me as being a poignant and perfect example of itself, of something beautiful and meaningful. As Rudolfo worked with the men I wandered around amazed at the perfection of weed flowers, of designs in tree bark, of beetles with gangly, black legs, of shimmering air over a grassy meadow.

I saw a fern, a kind of Polypody, on an oak-tree trunk, glowing yellow-green in intense sunlight. No fern could have been more perfect in its form, the gentle arc its stipe made, the way its spore-producing fruit-dots lined up so informally yet elegantly on its lower surface. I took its picture but I hesitate to show it, knowing that the magic of the moment won't be conveyed -- the way the air that day scintillated in the intense mountain sunlight, the way birdsong carried from afar through shimmering pines, the feeling of the sunlight and air on the skin, and the meaning of that fern being exactly where it was, as it was, exactly then... The picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070216po.jpg.

When I got back home I had an email from Larry in Mississippi. Larry has begun examining his world with a hand lens, keeping a nature notebook, and consciously taking the time to reflect on what's good and beautiful around him. He sent me a picture of a little mushroom in a hole in one of his trees. I think that that mushroom struck Larry as being as perfect an example of what it was as had my Polypody on the oak. Larry's picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070216mu.jpg.

I'm so tickled others know this feeling of wandering around, encountering perfection wherever they look.

*****

WEEPING JUNIPERS
Here and there at higher elevations you pass through juniper forests. These junipers aren't like the bushy, gnarly junipers of western North America's arid lands, or like the East's Redcedar. Rather, they grow to about 30 feet tall, are round-topped and well proportioned and -- most distinctly -- their branches droop. The tree goes by such names as Weeping Juniper, Drooping Juniper and Mexican Juniper. It's JUNIPERUS FLACCIDA, the epithet "flaccida" based on Latin "flaccidus," for "flabby." You can see our Weeping Juniper's flabby branches with its fruits a good bit larger than the Eastern Redcedar's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070216ju.jpg.

The tree's bark is reddish-brown and exfoliates in broad, interlaced, fibrous strips. On certain slopes and valley floors the species forms almost-pure stands. Often in such forests the floor is crusty with green moss. Such forests convey a sense of their having been crafted by an attentive artisan.

Weeping Junipers are native Mexican trees, barely extending into Texas in the Big Bend area. They display a curiously fragmented distribution pattern, as shown on the map at http://www.conifers.org/cu/ju/flaccida1.gif.

There must be around 60 species of juniper, which typically are dioecious (male flowers on one tree, female on another), and rarely do their branches droop. One has to ask why this particular species does droop. I think one hint to the answer is that in the same general environment -- at high elevations where the air is so humid that often cloudforests grow nearby -- there live similarly droopy-branched Mexican Weeping Pines, Pinus patula, which I told you about and showed you in last year's December 29th Newsletter.

Both of these species live where often cloud-fog saturates the air around them, causing water to condense on their leaves. My guess is that the species' droopiness facilitates the drying of the branches by making it easier for water to run straight down a drooping branch, to drip off the bottommost tip.

*****

MILKWEED FROM CURAÇAO
Vegetation here isn't nearly as brown and parched-looking as usually it is at this time in the Yucatan. Upslope and in certain valleys so many woody plants are sprouting new leaves that it looks positively springy. I hadn't expected this so deep into the dry season.

Still, relatively few native plants are flowering here now. Typically when you spot something blossoming it turns out to be an invasive species. That's the way it is with one of the most common and conspicuous of plants currently blossoming. A native of South America but now established as a weed in much of the world's tropics and subtropics, and common throughout Mexico, it's a milkweed with attractively two-toned yellowish orange and reddish orange blossoms, and known by the Latin name of ASCLEPIAS CURASSAVICA. A picture of one beside our entrance road is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070216mw.jpg.

In that picture you can see that milkweed blossoms are very unlike most other flowers. I've set up a whole page describing the milkweeds' unique flower anatomy at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_milkw.htm.

Though the milkweed species flowering here now is common and well known, it has a name problem. It goes by a lot of names but none is generally accepted and none is really appropriate. Blood Flower, Scarlet Milkweed, Silkweed, Indian Root, Tropical Milkweed, Bastard Ipecac... I think of it as the Milkweed from Curaçao because that's what its Latin name says, Asclepias curassavica. Curaçao is a small Dutch island in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Venezuela, one of the Lesser Antilles.

Asclepas curassavica is another of those invasive weeds I don't mind too much -- especially when I see how Monarchs and other butterflies visit it for nectar. I suspect that in many parts of the American tropics there wouldn't be any Monarchs if the Milkweed from Curaçao wasn't in the neighborhood.

*****

RED-ON-BLACK IN THE SHADOWS
A large, graceful, shade-producing tree common around people's houses and along the reservoir is a native fig tree, possibly Ficus pertusa. Native American fig trees are very unlike the small trees producing edible figs in the US Deep South. Fruits produced by the native trees are small, hard, marble-size items that mainly birds with powerful beaks relish.

In fact, one good way to see birds is to park yourself near or beneath a big fig tree and search the tree's deep shadows, for often you'll see birds quietly perching there nibbling a fruit. The fruits contain white latex that gums up a bird's beak, so often you see the bird wiping its beak, again and again, on the tree's limbs.

While scanning one big fig tree next to the reservoir's edge I spotted a bird that I surely wouldn't have seen had I not been intentionally searching among the tree's shadows. For, this bird was well camouflaged, looking black as the blackest shadows, and mottled with a dark red. There deep inside the tree the hints of red-on-black could have been sun-speckles on bark or dead leaves. However, the silhouette was unmistakable.

It was a fairly large, chunky bird with a massive, fig- crunching beak, -- a male Crimson-collared Grosbeak, a species endemic to northeastern Mexico, but sometimes accidental in southern Texas. You can see one at http://www.texasbirds.org/tbrc/ccgros.htm.

The birds in those pictures are well lit and in the open, very different from what I saw. I saw a skulking, black bird who could have been splattered with blood. He was mysterious and retiring, and when he saw me he quickly vanished into heavy cover.

Not far away in another dense, deeply shadowed tree I saw practically the same thing -- same shape, same thick beak, same black-with-curdled-blood coloring, same skulking-in-shadows -- except that this bird was much smaller, obviously a different species. For a moment my mind went blank, trying to figure out how the grosbeak could manifest himself in such a miniature version.

Finally I realized I was seeing a Varied Bunting. There's a pretty picture of one singing at http://www.oiseaux.net/photos/manuel.grosselet/varied.bunting.1.html  

Varied Buntings are mainly dark blue, but in deep shadows they look all black with only hints of dark red mottling showing.

The red-on-black-or-dark-blue combination seems to provide good camouflage for chunky birds who perch sedately as they chew on fruits and seeds.

*****

FREE DOWNLOADABLE FIELD GUIDES FOR TROPICAL AMERICA
Often you have read my bemoaning the lack of field guides here to help identify common plants and animals. Good guides exist for birds, but that's about it.

Chicago's Field Museum is making available a series of online "Rapid Color Guides for Plants" characteristic of the American tropics. Consisting almost entirely of labeled photographs with little or no discussion, the guides typically include just the most common species. Still, this is an important contribution. Among the many titles are:

The guides are available as free downloads in PDF format at http://fm2.fieldmuseum.org/plantguides/rcg_intro.asp.

*****

CONTEMPLATING THE HADLEY CELL
When I'm with visitors and we have a good view of a broad valley of scrubby, semidesert vegetation with lots of cacti, agaves and such, I can't keep myself from talking about the Hadley Cell. The Hadley Cell is named after George Hadley, who lived from 1685 to 1768. Let me tell you about it.

Visualize the Earth suspended in space. The Sun's energy falls most directly on equatorial regions, so those regions heat up much more vigorously than areas closer to the poles. Hot air rises, and rising air cools. Since cool air holds less moisture than hot air, rising air at the Equator loses much of its moisture as rain, thus accounting for the stormy, rainy tropics.

When the recently-dried-out equatorial air ascends as high as it can it branches into two vast rivers of air -- one river flowing northward, the other southward.

Now, if you visualize these Earth-size rivers of air flowing toward their respective Poles, you should see that the amount of air rushing toward the Poles remains the same, but, below the air, the width of the Earth at that latitude diminishes drastically. At the Poles themselves, which are infinitely small, theoretical entities, there's no land at all.

Therefore, at some point the vast rivers of sky-high air flowing toward their respective poles have to do something. Since the air can't go higher, or east or west because of all the rest of the air crowding at the sides, it can only descend. In fact, both rivers descend to the Earth, one at about 30° North, the other at about 30° South.

Remembering that this air was dried out when it rose at the Equator, it shouldn't surprise us to find arid lands where it descends. In fact, at about 30° North, behold the Sahara, the Arabian Desert, western India's Thar desert and our own Chihuahuan Desert in northern Mexico. At about 30° South, behold southern Africa's Kalahri, Australia's various deserts, and Chile's Atacama. Of course here and there local exceptions to this rule are found: Some deserts are caused by other than dried-out air descending from the sky, and some places at 30° latitude have lots of rain because of ocean currents and the like. Still, isn't it something how all those major deserts occur exactly where theory says they ought to?

Much of the descending dry air flows back toward the Equator, to take the place of heated air rising there. The circulating pattern consisting of that air, the rising equatorial air, the sky-air flowing away from the Equator, and the air descending at 30° North & South Latitudes -- that's the Hadley Cell. It explains so many things.

The Earth rotating beneath the descending air is responsible for our weather fronts arriving from generally eastern or western directions, not directly from the south or north.

Visualizing it all as a dynamic system consisting of the Hadley Cell, the rotating Earth deflecting descending air, air gaining and losing moisture, and more, requires effort. But it's a majestic concept worth working toward.

You can read more about the Hadley Cell and see a good diagram of it halfway down a fine NASA page at http://mynasadata.larc.nasa.gov/Cloud_Compare.html.

Another important climatological feature associated with the Hadley Cell is the Intertropical Convergence Zone. This, the Hadley Cell and other phenomena influencing the General Circulation of the Atmosphere (GCA) are discussed and illustrated at a University of Florida page at http://ess.geology.ufl.edu/usra_esse/ENSO_Atmosphere.html.

Why didn't they tell me about these things back when I was taking Climatology 101 in college? I think these concepts were so large and revolutionary that the conservative professorship at my school simply felt awkward dealing them. Certainly that was the case with Continental Drift. I acquired a B.Sc. in Geology just as Continental Drift was being introduced to the general public in Scientific American magazine, but during several years of taking geology classes only one of my professors in only one class spoke of it for only about ten minutes.

*****

MEXICO À LA 50S
Last Sunday was about as pretty as a day can get. It'd rained during the night so the morning air smelled fresh and was charged with energy. The blue sky was ornamented with just enough small, white cumulus clouds to look peaceful and summery, and as I began my walk along the reservoir's shore the temperature stood at a perfect 70°. Birds sang as if it were spring.

This walk takes me past several little ranchos -- poor folks living intimately with their chickens, goats and gorgeously flowering plants, usually in houses looking semi-temporary but clearly in use for many years. No matter how ramshackle the place, however, there's always music on the radio, and you can bet that that radio is turned up full-blast. My walks along the reservoir are accompanied by accordion-and-guitar-rich Mexican country music, even if I'm a quarter mile from the nearest dwelling.

I can relate to Mexican country people playing their radios loudly. In fact, when I see a Mexican campesino with mud on his boots and sweat stains on his straw hat, but wearing a glistening wristwatch or maybe even with an iPod in his pocket, I think of my farming father on summery Saturday afternoons back in the 50s. He'd pull our black Chevy with its running boards and rounded fenders to beneath the big Red Maple tree and spend most of the afternoon polishing the old clinker to perfection, keeping the car's doors wide open so the radio's very loud music could be heard very clearly. My father also decked our car with glisteny doodads and colorful, frilly bangles just like a lot of Mexicans do today.

In fact, in many respects, today's rural and small-town Mexican society is more like rural and small-town Kentucky was back in the 50s than is today's rural and small-town Kentucky.

Reflecting on this, it's easy to believe what the historians say: That most complex societies more or less follow the same general paths as they evolve.

This is a scary thought -- especially when you hear officials in China and India say that those countries have the right to progress through the same pollution- causing, ecosystem-destroying stages of development we in "the developed world" did long ago. This, even though it's clear that the Earth's climate, its rivers, its forests, its soil, etc. just can't survive if such large societies consume, pollute and destroy as we have consumed, polluted and destroyed.

There's a solution to this problem: People everywhere must acquire larger concepts of themselves. Instead of defining our core identities in terms of local family, tribal, religious or national affiliations, we must begin seeing ourselves as belonging to the family of human beings. Furthermore, instead of accepting that our main pastimes as humans must be to work to acquire wealth and luxurious goods, our main goal must become that of working to ensure the dignified survival of Life on Earth.

Humanity doesn't have the luxury of considering what is "fair" for the Chinese, Indians and other peoples as they "develop." Nor can we in "the Developed World" continue indulging our fancy that gross, unsustainable consumption is in any way part of a "developed" existence on Earth. We are all just humans, who must cooperate to save Life on Earth.

All this requires a great deal of worldwide re-education, which right now doesn't seem very likely. But, who knows? With the dawn of the Internet and other information-sharing, insight-sharing and feeling-sharing media, maybe the task isn't as daunting as it seems.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim