JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

February 23, 2007

ARROYO WALKING NEAR CAMARGO
English has borrowed many words from Spanish -- canyon, guerilla, guitar, patio, embargo, lasso, bonanza, rodeo, junta, silo, vanilla, and many others -- and "arroyo" is one of them. People in eastern North America don't talk about arroyos but any desert-walker in the arid West knows that an arroyo is "A water-carved channel or gully in arid country, usually rather small with steep banks and dry most of the time." In terms of conducting water, arroyos are typically all-or-nothing. They're nearly always dry but when they do flow usually it's after a desert storm, when they may be boulder-rolling torrents.

But before getting to my arroyo, I need to tell you that my friend Rudolfo's family lives in San Juan del Río across the mountains to the west, and last Saturday I hitched a ride with him as he made his weekly weekend visit home.

For about an hour in a little red VW Bug we sailed through the mountains on stomach-churning curvy roads and what a pleasure it was having the windows open, seeing peach trees in people's yards full of pink blossoms, having the radio full blast as Rudolfo bellowed out accompaniments to ranchero tunes on his CD player, feeling so good he had to toot his horn at every dog and every burro along the road. He played romantic tunes, too, and on high notes he'd take his hand from the wheel so he could throw his arm open to the sky just like sincere singers on stage. At work Rudolfo is quiet, efficient and hard working, but in the little red Bug and in his wrap-around sunglasses he's a high-energy romantic and I felt subdued and wooden next to him, though any other time I'd have felt pretty gushy myself.

Not far west of high-elevation Pinal de Amoles the road crossed the mountain range and suddenly we were out of a green, highland landscape of pines and junipers into a gray-brown, barren-looking, bushy, semi-desert. Downslope a little just beyond the dusty-looking town of Camargo, at around 5500 feet in elevation (1700 m), I spotted a rutted, long abandoned track plunging into a valley, so that's where Rudolfo put me out. You can see the exact view before me as I headed into that valley at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070223vw.jpg.

In that picture down at the bottom left you can see what looks like a white road bordered by trees. That's a dry streambed, our arroyo, and that's where my rocky road led. Most of my weekend hike consisted of following this arroyo as it joined with other arroyos, until I was in a fair-sized, bolder-strewn but bone-dry riverbed several miles into the mountains. Then I had the fun of backtracking, being sure I always chose the right fork. Arroyo-walking downstream is simple, but coming back you'd better choose the right branch every time or you're lost... You can see a typical view from inside the arroyo at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070223ar.jpg.

Often I explored the arroyo's narrow side branches. You can see what the insides of one of those looks like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070223au.jpg.

In that picture the dark clumps weighing down limbs on the tree being undercut by erosion are bromeliads.

*****

OCOTILLO
"Ocotillo" is another word we've taken from Spanish into English, this time as the name of a plant. In this case it's such an unusual plant that it has its own family, the Ocotillo Family, the Fouquieriaceae, which contains only the genus Fouquieria. I'm not sure which Fouquieria we have, maybe FOUQUIERIA LEONILAE. The one in the US Southwest is F. splendens, the name hinting at why ocotillo is such a popular plant among nature folks. You can see the ocotillos beside my second night's camp at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070223oc.jpg.

That picture suggests Ocotillo's strangeness -- its long, slender, spiny, arching stems -- but there's little splendiferousness to see. Ocotillos are splendid mainly after heavy rains. Most of the year they consist of the leafless, spiny branches shown in the picture, but about three days after a soaking rain they adorn themselves with small, emerald-green leaves. When the arching, green stems are tipped with inflorescences of bright red flowers the plants are indeed splendid. Right now our plants are just beginning to flower. You can see a spike with one blossom open at the inflorescence's base at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070223of.jpg.

An Ocotillo's first leaves possess pronounced petioles, or stems, and midribs. When these leaves die, their petioles and part of their midribs remain on the stem and harden into the slender, curved spines you see in the above image. At spine bases arise tiny, hardly visible "short-shoots" (as opposed to the spiny "long-shoots" in the picture), from which new leaves arise each time there's a good rain. In the picture, at the base of each spine you can barely make out some low, splintery stuff. One of those "short-shoot" splinters at each petiole will produce a short-lived leaf the next time a big rain comes. This short-shoot/long-shoot business is unusual in the plant world and supports the conclusions of recent gene analysis that Ocotillos aren't closely related to any other kind of plant.

You can guess from the flowers' shape and red color that they're very attractive to hummingbirds. Ants and ground squirrels eat the flowers.

*****

ATTACKED BY A CHRISTMAS CACTUS
Wandering through the scrub, an odd sensation on the back of my right leg caught my attention. It was as if suddenly I'd developed some flab there and my walking was causing the flab to flop back and forth. I twisted around and looked down at the back of my leg and saw the heart- palpitating sight you can behold yourself at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070223cc.jpg.

That picture shows four stem sections of a Christmas Cactus, CYLINDROPUNTIA LEPTOCAULIS, adhering to my body by their spines, one stuck to the shorts' pocket in which I carry my old birding field-guide, the other three very securely attached to the skin on the back of my leg. I can't account for my having been able to feel the cactus sections swinging back and forth, but not the spines stuck into my flesh. Well, you can see from my red, scratched and dirty legs that they'd been through a bit scrambling about the arroyos, so maybe they were just beyond feeling sharp sensations. However, when I extracted the spines -- and each section was attached by two or more well anchored ones -- I certainly felt that!

I backtracked and photographed what may have been my five-ft-tall, much branched donor cactus, and you can see that at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070223cd.jpg.

I can hear some folks shaking their heads now saying that what's shown in that picture doesn't look anything like a Christmas Cactus, thinking that a Christmas Cactus is one of those benign little flat-stemmed cacti sold in pots, and which produce pretty, red flowers around Christmas time. Well, several cacti go by the name of Christmas Cactus and this is one of them. But neither does the plant in my picture look very Christmassy. I've seen the species when it did, however -- when it was fruiting. The fruits are bright red, so on green stems they can look as Christmassy as anything. Sometimes English speakers also call this cactus by one of its Spanish names, Tasajillo. You can see both the species' flowers and fruits at http://www.fireflyforest.com/flowers/others/other02.html.

This is a common cactus extending from our northern Mexican uplands into Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and even Oklahoma. At the base of its spines appear dense tufts of very fine, sharp glochids, which I've told you enough about, and I got plenty of those while unsticking myself from the joints on the back of my leg.

*****

CHOLLA SKELETONS
Here and there in the cactus-rich scrub I found woody, cylindrical items abundantly ornamented with diamond- shaped holes that where so geometrically aligned that the objects almost looked manmade. You can see one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070223ch.jpg.

It took me years of occasional desert visits to figure out that these are skeletons of cholla cacti. The common cholla below Camargo is the shoulder-high Tree Cholla, CYLINDROPUNTIA IMBRICATA. You can see from my picture what's tree-like about it: It has a trunk. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070223c2.jpg.  

This species may be even more abundant and far ranging than the previous species, extending north clear into Kansas and Colorado. It's also become an invasive weed in some countries. If you want to see Tree Chollas taller and thicker-growing than I've ever seen, look at this web page in Australia, where its natural enemies haven't yet caught up with it, and it's called Devil's Rope Cactus.

You'll notice that both Tree Cholla and Christmas Cactus are members of the genus Cylindropuntia, and thus are closely related. One curious feature uniting them is that they both bear spines usually invested with a yellowish or whitish papery sheath. You can see such a sheath I've just pulled off a cholla spine at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070223cs.jpg.

I can't figure out why the spines of these cacti bear sheathes. Many cacti produce sheathless spines and appear to do just fine. Sheathes on the Christmas Cactus spines that punctured my leg didn't remain stuck in my skin when I removed the spines.

Christmas Cactus's stem joints are so weakly attached to the main stem that when I tugged on its spine sheathes the stem joints came off before the sheathes did. However, when I tugged on Tree Cholla spines the sheathes came off first. Still, the Tree Cholla's outer stem joints also are fairly loosely attached. Loose joints latch onto the fur of any large mammal passing by, which serves the parent cactus's purposes, since broken-off joints can root and form new plants. Beneath Tree Chollas typically you see numerous broken-off joints lying around, their spines menacingly pointing in every direction.

Wild burros wandered the landscape below Camargo and I just wonder what kind of messes they get into with these cacti.

*****

LEATHERSTEM/ WITCH'S FINGERS
In the above picture of the Tree Cholla at  you may have noticed the slender, gray stems at the base of the cactus, arching to the left. There's a close-up showing that plant's smooth, gray skin and short side-shoots at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070223ja.jpg.

This is a typical resident of dry, gravelly ridges in the Chihuahuan Desert from New Mexico and western Texas south into Mexico. Called Leatherstem or sometimes Witch's Fingers, I think it's the same species I saw so much of in Big Bend National Park, JATROPHA DIOICA, during my backpacking days there. In Spanish the plant is sometimes called Sangre de Drago, or "Dragon's Blood," because when you puncture its skin a thick, clear fluid emerges, which soon turns red upon exposure to air.

This is another plant that's leafless most of the year, but after a good rain quickly sprouts leaves and looks very different from the photo. You can see a leafy plant at http://botany.cs.tamu.edu/FLORA/swts/euph001.jpg.

This species' genus, Jatropha, is worth knowing, for several remarkable species belong to it. In some parts of arid, upland Mexico I've run into "bottle plant" Jatrophas with enormously swollen bases. Jatrophas are often used as bonsai specimens. Currently the greatest interest in a Jatropha species focuses on Jatropha curcas, which is being grown extensively in India and elsewhere for the oil in its seeds, which can be used as "bio-diesel" fuel for engines.

*****

THREE MORE CACTI FROM BELOW CAMARGO
I fear over-cactusing you, but the semi-desert below Camargo is such a fine place for cacti that I have to share at least a little more. For example, look here: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070223co.jpg.

Have you ever met such a congenial-looking cactus family? These, about 1.5 feet tall, grew at the rim of an arroyo's vertical bank. I think they're CORYPHANTHA ERECTA, endemic to three states here in north-central Mexico, but grown widely elsewhere because they are so handsome. I couldn't get to the plants to snatch a flower for certain identification, but they match pictures on the Internet.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070223x2.jpg you see two more common cactus species. The one on the right is obviously closely related to the common pricklypear, but notice the wonderful absence of spines! This is OPUNTIA MICRODASYS, sometimes lumped with O. rufida, of which I've seen plenty in western Texas. English names for our species include Bunny-ears Cactus and Polka-dot Cactus, but I prefer the Spanish name, "Nopal Cegador." That means "Blinder Cactus," which surely is based on the belief I've heard expressed in West Texas that wind can blow the cactus's abundant, fine glochids (those very tiny spines at the base of large spines) into the eyes of grazing livestock, and blind them. Despite the profuse glochids, this cactus is often cultivated, mainly because of its lack of regular spines.

To the left of the Blinder Cactus grow two young barrel cacti, which I suspect to be FEROCACTUS ECHIDNE, endemic to five or so states in this part of upland Mexico, but grown widely. Not having flowers I can't be sure of the name. I read that in some places this species is so abundant that the natives remove the spines and feed the plant body to livestock. Also, the pith has been boiled in sugar-water, then allowed to dry, or crystallize, to make a backcountry candy -- a process that has depopulated large portions of the countryside of barrel cactus. Several barrel-cactus species, known here collectively as "biznagas," have suffered the same fate.

*****

TREE TOBACCO
Fairly regularly as I hiked the arroyo's most isolated reaches, along with endless plastic bottles washed from trash dumps far upstream, I found invasive plants looking in surprisingly good health. One such weed was the scarlet-flowered Lion's Ear, LEONOTIS LEONURUS, which I told you about in this month's February 9th Newsletter. Lion's Ear is from Southern Africa.

Another common invasive was the attractive Castorbean, RICINUS COMMUNIS, from whose beans castor oil is pressed, and whose bean shells contain ricin, one of the most deadly of poisons. This plant, often advertised in the backs of magazines under the name of Mole Killer, also is from tropical Africa.

There was a lot of Tree Tobacco, NICOTIANA GLAUCA, too. The genus Nicotiana is the same in which the tobacco of cigarette fame is found, so in a sense this is a real tobacco, though the plant doesn't contain nicotine. The species is originally from southern Bolivia and northern Argentina but has vigorously invaded some parts of the US Southwest and other countries -- it's even been found growing wild in North America as far north as Ohio and Maryland. One reason it's invading so many places is that people grow it for its pretty flowers. Here I often see it around people's homes grown as an ornamental, and along streams. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070223tt.jpg.

*****

BIRDS BELOW CAMARGO
Saturday afternoon as I descended toward the arroyo I didn't hear a single bird. The land was as silent as a land can be. Only at dusk after I'd pegged my tent in a narrow arroyo branchlet did two species briefly and rather tentatively call. As light failed rapidly, White- winged Doves gently cooed, and some titmouse-like Verdins called insistently with their sharp CHIP CHIP CHIPs, which I interpreted as a warning call -- that a gringo was camped in the arroyo. Verdins occur from the US Desert Southwest to central Mexico. You can see a Verdin at http://sosensky.com/bird-photos/Verdin.htm.

During the next morning's early cool hours birds commonly seen in scrub along the arroyo were House Finches, often perching like big juicy strawberries atop green cacti and agave flower-stems, Northern Mockingbirds, and Northern Cardinals. Turkey Vultures occasionally sailed across the valley, and every now and then I could hear Ravens croaking, even if I couldn't see them.

During much of the day's middle the only birds heard were Cactus Wrens, with their low, gruff GRRU-GRRU-GRRU- GRRU... You can see an illustration of a Cactus Wren -- the birds are surprisingly large to be wrens -- and hear one calling if you have Windows Media installed, here.  

In the hottest, most glaring part of middle afternoon it seemed that not a thing stirred. Just as an experiment I chose a thorny thicket in a ravine looking likely to harbor birds and spished -- made the SHHH-SHHH-SHHH sound. Instantly up popped two Cactus Wrens onto their respective Ocotillo stems and replied with their GRRU- GRRU-GRRU-GRRU... Other Cactus Wrens in other thorny ravines chimed in, and for about 15 minutes the whole slope broke out in GRRU-GRRU-GRRU-GRRUs. Then it was quiet again, real quiet.

*****

THE SPINY SWIFT IN MY ADOBE OVEN
On sunny days -- and most days here are sunny -- the solar cooker I described in this year's February 2nd Newsletter fries my eggs and bakes my pulque bread. On cloudy days I make a little fire in an adobe oven. The oven is of a special high-efficiency design, made of dirt and lime, so it's sort of an adobe oven. It's an especially good design for families who keep a pot of beans gurgling most of the day, but for my fry-an-egg- and-scat manner of cooking it's a bit awkward. I've adapted it to my approach, however, so we get along.

A lizard lives in the oven. When I'm cooking he moves into one of the special ventilation chambers and doesn't seem to mind -- actually seems to like the heat. When you walk along the reservoir, every roadcut with exposed rocks entertains this kind of lizard -- sometimes five or more scampering away as you walk by. You also see them in forests, even at higher elevations. They're all over the place, and they're very similar to the North's fence, or spiny, lizards. You can see the one on my adobe oven at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070223fl.jpg.

Looking at lizard lists from our area and comparing my oven lizard with photos, best I can figure out, this is SCELOPORUS GRAMMICUS, the same genus as the northern fence lizards, but a different species. S. grammicus is sometimes known as the Mesquite Lizard, and we do have Mesquite here. The species is considered to be distributed from southern Texas through most of upland Mexico.

Actually, Sceloporus taxonomy seems to be in such a mess that I wouldn't be surprised if many of the 77-or-so species currently recognized turn out to be variations of a few taxa. That's one reason I rather like the name "spiny swift" thrown about breezily by reptile fanatics in herpetology forums on the Internet. My S. grammicus isn't as spiny as some species but, at least when it's warm, he's certainly swift. I'd never have been able to photograph him if it hadn't been a chilly day.

*****

FIREWOOD & SOLAR COOKERS
Within the last couple of weeks someone has taken a truck or 4x4 down the very eroded, rocky trail into the arroyo, then driven on the arroyo bed for half a mile or so before it got too rough. Judging from hacked snags along the arroyo's banks, whoever ventured there probably was collecting firewood. They must have had a devil of a time getting their vehicle back out. I saw where they'd scraped high rocks with their chassis, and where their tires had slid sideways for a long way on loose gravel banks. They must have valued firewood very highly to have invested such an effort in getting it like this.

No: What they had valued was the cooking and warmth that firewood can provide.

But, solar ovens can cook and provide warmth. Therefore, in that rain-shadow valley where 95% of the days year round must be sunny, where nothing more than scorching, unrelenting sunlight imparts character to the land, why is it that replacing firewood with solar cookers simply isn't being considered? You mention solar cookers and people say that yes they've heard about them, they sound fantastic, they want to try them, and then if you push the issue a little the response is: Get real. We've always used firewood, we use firewood now and we have to keep using firewood. These far-out concepts are fine for people like you but we have to live in the real world.

Since most of our days in Jalpan are sunny and on sunny days I cook my meals in the small, simple solar oven described in this month's February 2nd Newsletter, to be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070202sc.jpg, my healthy body is living proof that solar cookers work. Therefore, why don't people in sunny areas where firewood is hard to get and energy is needed so badly at least make an effort to set up ovens?

One reason is that an oven of the kind I'm using here may cost $15 or $20 and if you're really poor -- as some firewood-using people here are -- you just never have that kind of money extra. However, probably most families around Camargo do have that kind of money. I'll bet that the fellow who took his pickup truck into the arroyo for firewood spent more than $20 just on parts to repair his truck after the trip.

It's easy to think that people don't use solar cookers simply because they're so stuck in their traditional lives that they can't really change. Yet, here I see plenty of folks more than happy to abandon some of the most deeply rooted, traditional features of their lives. Nothing can be more traditional to Mexican life than the tortilla, yet I see again and again that as soon as a family has enough money they give up tortillas for much less nutritional and flavorful white bread -- here appropriately called Pan Bimbo, or Bimbo Bread.

So, why are tortillas so easy to abandon, but solar ovens so hard to accept?

I think it's mostly this: People on TV and in glossy magazines don't eat tortillas. They eat white bread, and we know this because Pan Bimbo advertisements show people eating white bread and, in fact, very few TV people do eat tortillas.

As I've said in the past, if anyone is to save us, it well may be the artists among us -- they who can manage the media in a way that slips concepts for sustainable living into a people's collective consciousness painlessly and unnoticed.

The difficult part of the equation is that selling white bread makes money that can be used to pay artists to make slick ads for stuff like white bread, but using solar cookers just saves the Earth, making no one rich.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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