JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

March 31, 2007

EMELIA'S BOUQUET
Last Sunday I explored dirt roads on the other side of town, going down little valleys and up scrubby slopes, past handsome orchards of orange and guava, and ramshackle, dusty ranchos sometimes not much more than a few cinderblocks topped with rusty corrugated tin sheets and with a hysterical dog tied at a post.

I happened to pass one such rancho just as a señora with two little boys was closing the gate. She held a big bouquet of violet-blossomed Chinaberry flowers, MELIA AZEDARACH, and eyed me suspiciously. After exchanging "Buenos díases" I continued around the bend, saw that the road ended, turned around, and found the señora still standing there, not willing to leave the rancho with a gringo wandering in the neighborhood. When I got even with her again I said that her Chinaberry bouquet was pretty, and asked if she was going to grace her table with it. No, she was going to church, and it was for the Virgin.

She asked me the usual questions and when she figured out that I was harmless, as we walked together toward town she launched into a complicated story about how she loved doves, how once she'd fed the horses and dropped some grain, then doves came (certainly White-winged Doves) and she thought they were so pretty that she began throwing grain there every day and before long she had lots of pretty doves and that made her so happy and then one time her husband's friend came and asked about all those doves and said we ought to shoot and eat them but she said no, no they are too beautiful to kill and the man just laughed and said well do what you want but mole de paloma, or dove mole (pronounced MOHL-leh), sure is good, and she just shook her head no, no, nobody is going to kill those doves.

As she spoke, two Sharp-shinned Hawks, permanent residents here, circled above our valley sharply yelping KYEW-KYEW-KYEW as if they were courting spring birds over a broomsedge field in Mississippi and the two little boys exploded with excitement and, though the birds flew much, much too high for them to ever hit, threw rocks at them, yelling that they'd almost got them, almost knocked them from the sky.

I asked Emelia, for that was her name, if I could photograph her pretty bouquet, to show my friends in the north where it was so cold and gray that here in Mexico we had pretty flowers. She hesitated, then handed me a single blossom and said to photograph that, but then she realized that that's not what I wanted, and at the same time I understood that she was embarrassed that she wasn't prettily dressed, wearing a blue sweatshirt so stained that no amount of washing would ever make it look good, and after having two kids she was fat and lumpy. I was sorry that I'd asked, but then I saw her rearranging the leaves so that her bouquet looked better and she stuck out her arm as far from her body as possible and looked away grimacing saying take the picture now, and it's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070331pa.jpg.

*****

MAN CALLED CYPRESS
Back in town I had to cross the little river on a kind of metal suspension bridge of a type common in this area. You walk on metal plates and the whole thing sways, but both ends are well mounted in monumental concrete landings and the steel cables are very thick, so you feel safe.

I happened to arrive at the stairs up to the bridge at the same time as a mature, well-dressed man wearing a red-white-and-blue baseball cap reading AMERICA across it, and with a huge zipped bag slung across his back. He gave those steep steps a look that clearly said, "Maybe I can make it up you this time, but I'm not sure how many more trips I can make like this... "

He saw me behind him and quipped as we started across, "And now we'll see if this thing falls down or not." By the time we'd crossed we'd exchanged several jokes. He leaned up against the landing, found a support for his bag so he could stand there without straining, smiled and started asking the usual what's-a-gringo- like-you-doing-here-in-little-Jalpan questions. When it was his turn to talk, here's what I learned:

He made his living walking door to door in all the little towns in these mountains, selling clothing from the big bag on his back. On this Sunday morning that was exactly what he was been doing in this barrio next to the river, and as kids crossed the bridge and passed us he showed how he knew the nickname of every one of them, and they all recognized him and spoke to him like an uncle.

He was a full-blooded Otomí Indian from a little village much higher up in the mountains, he spoke Otomí absolutely fluently but his children don't speak a single word, feeling that "not speaking the language, they are someone of a certain social level, and it's a sad thing, Señor, yes a sad thing, for the Otomí language is beautiful, yes Señor, beautiful," and then he taught me some rough-sounding words for "good morning" and "where are you going" and "thank you," but the sounds were so unlike those of Indo- European languages that by the time I'd learned one phrase already I'd forgotten the last one, and he was just as inept at learning English.

He said his name was Sabino. "You mean, Sabino like the names of these big-trunked Mexican Cypresses around us here beside the river," I asked. Yes, he shared his name with those trees and would I please tell him what his name was in English.

"'Cypress,'" I said, "Your name is "Cypress," and what a fine name that is, a name of a kind I wish I had." He nodded and said that yes the name was a solid one and it even sounded good in English, and he wanted me to write it down. "Cypress," he said, "Cipreeeeee," already forgetting it, the sound already slipping away.

I asked if I could take his picture so I could remember my new friend Cypress and he squared himself as best the oversized bag strapped to his back let him, set his jaw and proudly nodded to go ahead and take the picture, and reader you can see that proud man at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070331ds.jpg.

Wikipedia does a fair job describing Otomí history and culture at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otom%C3%AD.

*****

A GIANT KATYDID
That's its English Name -- "Giant Katydid," as opposed to the usual North American just-plain "Katydid" or "Common True Katydid." You can see the Giant Katydid I found this week hanging on the Reserve's bathroom door and then transferred to the woods at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070331kd.jpg.

You might enjoy seeing if you can spot how it differs from the "Common True Katydid" found in much of eastern North America, shown at http://bugguide.net/node/view/27886.

One big difference is noticeable in the architecture of the back area just behind the head. In bug classification, such differences mean a lot. Our giant species is about three inches long.

Anyway, this Giant Katydid I'm talking about is STILPNOCHLORA COULONIANA, a member of the "False Katydid Subfamily," the Phaneropterinae, not the "True Katydid Subfamily," the Pseudophyllinae. To see a list of over 350 katydid types found north of Mexico, each species name linked to picture, go to http://buzz.ifas.ufl.edu/katylist.htm.

If your computer can digest WAV files (most PCs can) you can hear our Giant Katydid stridulating at http://buzz.ifas.ufl.edu/081sl.wav.

Compare that to the "Southeastern Common True" call at http://buzz.ifas.ufl.edu/141sl2.wav.

What a treat to see this tropical, Mexican variation on the Yankee species I grew up with!

*****

SHRUB VERBENA/ LANTANA
I've never found it easy to distinguish between Lantanas and Verbenas without seeing the fruits. Up North where you have only a handful of species the differences among flowers look pretty obvious but when you start meeting the many other often-tropical species, things get less clear. With the fruits, however, it's more clear-cut: A Verbena ovary separates into four nutlets, while Lantana ovaries produce fruits with two bony nutlets.

Therefore, the Shrub Verbena that's been flowering here ever since I arrived is clearly really a Lantana, since its ovary matures into into a fleshy fruit with two bony nutlets. You can see the flowers of our very common, very pretty species, LANTANA URTICOIDES,   at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070331lc.jpg.

Lantana urticoides and Lantana camara are often confused, and both grow here. Both are long-flowering shrubs with strong-smelling herbage, and both have horticultural variations with different-colored flowers. Supposedly urticoides has rounded sepals while camara's are acute. I just wonder if they are really different species, though.

*****

A RUN TO THE BORDER
In recent years at this time -- when my six-month tourist visit for Mexico is about to expire -- I've been heading north for whatever the summer holds for me up there. With my latest visa about to run out, this Tuesday I boarded a Vencedor Bus, crossed the mountains to the east, and descended to the lowlands for the first time in months. Then I headed north on a series of buses through Ciudad de Valles, Ciudad Mante, Ciudad Victoria ("Ciudad" means "City," so "Ciudad Victoria" is like "Victory City"). I arrived late that same night at the bus station in Matamoros, in the state of Tamaulipas, just a few blocks across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, USA.

I didn't step foot onto US soil, however. There's a customs station right in the Matamoros bus station, and I didn't really need anything from across the river, so as soon as I got my new visa I headed back south. I traveled all day Wednesday, leaving Matamoros at 8 AM and arriving back in Jalpan at 9:30 PM.

It's grand being in a country where the mass transit system is so well developed, even serving small towns such as Jalpan. If you have traveled long distances on Greyhound in the US you know what a seedy, cattle- herding experience it is at most of the main stations. My first bus-change occurred in the town of Ciudad de Valles, with a population of about 150,000. You can see a view of the interior of that town's spacious bus station at a quite time around 1 PM at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070331bt.jpg.

Besides the size and openness, the main difference between this station and one in the US is that a number of bus lines are offering service, not just monopolistic Greyhound. Each company serves several to many locations. Some offer cheap tickets for rattletrap buses that stop for anyone standing along the road and sometimes zigzag from small town to small town, but other more expensive companies provide luxurious none-stop service. I took in-between buses, ones not going non-stop but not stopping at every little place, either. You can see a row of buses boarding passengers outside the Valles terminal at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070331bw.jpg.

While not wanting to fall into the trap of comparing cultures, also I don't want to give the impression that I'm eager to praise Mexico at the expense of the US. Therefore, let me also tell you that on my way across the mountains I had to stop in Xilitla to visit a bank, to pay for my last visa, which I hadn't done yet. For a very simple transaction that should have taken about a minute, for an hour and a half I stood in line in Xilitla's little bank, which was so hot and full of people that several times I thought I might faint from simple lack of oxygen.

Then I really missed the US's efficient, customer-friendly banking system. Every culture is a mixture of good and bad things.

*****

A WETBACK'S SIMPLE QUESTION
At daybreak on Wednesday morning I was wandering streets around the bus station in Matamoros, waiting for my departure, when a man about 50 years old approached me.

"You speak Spanish?" he asked. "You live here? You crossing to The Other Side... ?"

He was finding it hard to ask me what he really wanted to know. Finally, after coughing, rubbing his face, looking around, coughing again, he put his hands in the air and said:

"I have to cross to find work on the Other Side, and I don't how it's done. Can you tell me anything at all?"

He was from the southern Mexican state of Michoacán, an area so overpopulated and politically out of control (some refer to it as a narco-state) that the whole region has been on the verge of insurrection for years. You can read an article called "Indigenous Land Struggles in Michoacán, Mexico" at http://www.peaceworkmagazine.org/pwork/0407/040714.htm.

I told him that it was easy to cross the river and go through holes in the fence, but then a few miles inside the US there's another line of customs control, and that's harder. You can try to go around stations and escape the constantly roving Border Patrol by going deep into the desert, but you can die there. In fact, unless you have friends helping on The Other Side, or you're smuggled professionally by "coyotes" you can trust, or someone has paid off a US border official (I'm surprised how many people have told me lately that that's how they get in), getting to where the jobs are is very dangerous, much harder than it used to be."

His face indicated that he'd heard the same from others, and had hoped I'd say something different.

Inside the bus station at Matamoros, where I overheard scraps of several conversations of people trying to get to The Other Side, the walls are hung with large posters aiming to dissuade people from crossing illegally. You can see the most convincing, showing a tight little band of folks about to wander into a hostile-looking, seemingly endless desert, each person carrying only a small bag and a plastic jug of water, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070331po.jpg.

In big letters, at the top the poster asks "How far can you get on a jug of water?" The words below say "Taking three days to cross through the desert can bring you to a fatal destination." You don't really need to know what the words are saying in order to understand what's going on. The people's body language and the desert say it all.

Other posters show in gory detail people who have been abandoned by their "coyotes" and who died of exposure, women raped by their "coyotes," and drowned bodies.

*****

CRIMSON IXORA
I'd thought I might take my time, maybe travel for three days instead of two, walking around each town in which I changed buses, photographing flowering plants and meeting interesting people, but, once I got on the road, something inside me identified with the bus's endless rumbling movement and I found myself between buses just taking brief walks to work out my leg stiffness, then boarding another bus.

However, at the bus stations themselves one hedge- producing plant drew attention by producing handsome clusters of bright red flowers, and it was a species I knew, for it also is much planted in the Yucatan. It was the Crimson Ixora, IXORA COCCINEA, of the opposite-leaved, inferior-ovaried Coffee Family, the Rubiaceae. You can see the pretty flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070331ix.jpg.

Though much planted in the tropics worldwide, this plant is from India and China. It's been grown in gardens for so long that several varieties have been produced, including a yellow-flowered one and one with much larger, fuller flowers.

*****

ROADSIDE SUGARCANE
Jalpan is practically surrounded by mountains so we're somewhat sheltered here, our nortes, or northers, seeming to congeal around us like cooling Jell-O in a bowl, instead of sweeping in on a front.

But, this week, once I'd crossed the mountains and was on the coastal plain not too far from the Gulf, then there was the wind, and I realized how I've been missing it.

Inside the buses I saw the wind more than felt it. I saw the wind-flood bending knee-high corn westward, twisting the corn's blades so that leaf-bottom silveriness scintillated in heavy sunlight. An ocean of wind-tossed Mesquite waved at me with emerald- green, feathery leaves interspersed with slender, greenish-white, dangling flower spikes. Crested Caracaras bobbed in churning gusts that just got more violent as the day wore on. I would have loved being out in the mesquite with all that gushing air and branch- and bird-tossing.

There were also big fields of knee-high sugarcane, and other big fields of irrigated, mature cane. It's typical for fields of mature sugarcane to undergo controlled burns that remove the dead, papery lower blades, makes more sugar available in the stems, and chars the stems black. White, billowing smoke rose from large fields being burned, and we passed big trucks more packed with charred-black stems than you can imagine. We passed a sugarcane mill looking like an old-fashioned steel mill in its size, shape, and belching of black smoke. When I lived in Belize, sometimes at this season the whole landscape smelled of molasses, and I would have liked to smell that on the obstreperous, sunlight-purified wind outside the buses.

The buses jarred too much for me to photograph a sugarcane field, but you can see a map showing where sugarcane is grown worldwide (I went completely across the red blob in northeastern Mexico) and see what a field looks like at http://www.sucrose.com/learn.html.

As during tobacco-marketing season in Kentucky when roadsides are often brown with scraps of seasoned tobacco blown off trucks, and in Mississippi roadsides often look like they're lined with the remains of snowdrifts when cotton blows off wagons and trucks, now here sugarcane stems fallen from big trucks and squashed flat by vehicles rolling over them imparted to the roadsides a particular character.

*****

SUNLIGHT, WIND & KARATE DOG
I told you what I like about the Mexican bus system, so now I'll tell you what I despise. The first-class ones show movies, and those movies usually are awful, very loud, heavy on car chases, blood and guts, teenagers doing cute and mindless things, and you can imagine what the adventures of Karate Dog are like. Two days and nights of it, one movie after another, I lost count. Outside, sunlight, wind, buoyant caracaras, gyrating mesquite and sugarcane. Inside, endless Karate Dog.

I know that most people like car-chasing and teenagers doing cute things but, some of us, just to remain sane, must channel our minds through the clutter and focus on sun and wind beyond.

This brings up the interesting question: What's the essential difference between Karate Dog's world and the world of sunlight and wind? Both are merely stimuli working on the mind -- images, odors, sounds and such.

In terms of remaining sane, the main difference between the two worlds is that Nature imparts good paradigms to those who would pay attention. Paradigms such as simplicity, recycling and the conservation of resources, the innate strength of diverse systems with interdependent and self-disciplined components, the spiritual component of the evolving whole.

But, Karate Dog roots us in none of this. An endless diet dished up from the Karate Dog world at first pleases with its novelty, then sours, then disorients and finally conveys to us its own paradigms, modes of behavior and thinking that are unsustainable, unhealthy, and really rather ugly, in my opinion.

From the bus windows, one can at least try to shut out Karate Dog and focus on the wind and sunlight outside, the dancing Mesquite, the swooping caracaras.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net