JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

April 7, 2007

HIKING FROM CUATRO PALOS TO BUCARELI
You may remember from this year's January 19th Newsletter an expansive picture taken from the high- elevation town of Cuatro Palos into the desert mountains below. That picture still resides at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070119vw.jpg.

In the picture, taken with a small telephoto lens so that distances are compressed, you can barely make out a cluster of white buildings in the valley a little to the right of the photo's center. Those buildings make up the community of Bucareli. By far the largest structure in the settlement is the former convent of Bucareli, which Franciscan monks began building in 1786, by. I read that the convent still houses over 400 volumes of theological works, all written in Latin. The moment I saw those buildings from Cuatro Palos I knew that getting to them through that fractured, desert landscape would make a great hike.

Therefore, this Thursday I hitched a ride with Margarita who was heading to Cuatro Palos. A group of Easter-vacation tourists was planning to have lunch there and view the scenery. Cuatro Palos is just one of several isolated communities the Reserve is helping get involved in ecotourism.

Arriving at Cuatro Palos at about 8:30 AM, we found ourselves clouded in. No view, no sun, nothing but chilly fog. That day, unusual for this time of year, the tourists would have a great meal but they'd see no view. I set off hiking, anyway.

A boy called Chucho agreed to take me downslope to beyond the town's ponds, to where the trail became apparent. Arriving there, still in clouds, Chucho insisted on taking me a little farther. A good deal downslope we met his friend Vicente watching a herd of grazing cattle and despite my insistence that they didn't need to accompany with me any farther, Vicente joined us, and off we all went toward Bucareli.

The boys were like gazelles floating atop the jagged rocks and negotiating narrow parts of the trail with sheer drop-offs on one side. My near-sightedness is so bad that judging distances is hard, so with a walking stick I sort of peck-peck my way across difficult terrain, and I run into lots of spiny branches, getting fairly bloody. Soon Chucho and Vicente were looking at one another with faces saying "This old guy is going to die when we leave him." That's probably why I just couldn't get rid of them. They accompanied me about half the way, and I was never quite sure whether to be aggravated with them or grateful. You can meet them, Chucho on the left, Vicente on the right, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070407cv.jpg.

Also you can see the view toward Bucareli taken after we'd been on the trail for a couple of hours, and were finally below the clouds, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070407v1.jpg.

*****

THE GOAT HERDER
Between Cuatro Palos and Bucareli it's uninhabited, almost. There's a little rancho about halfway and a miner's hut, and that's it. About half an hour before reaching the rancho we encountered the goat herder. It was a young woman. We'd been hearing her songs echoing through the valley an hour before we saw her, a kind of high-voice singing you only hear sung by people used to being alone nearly all the time, with towering slopes all around them. I've heard it in similar valleys in the Andes of Peru and Ecuador, and in the Alps of Austria and Switzerland.

When we saw her, she looked like all the others I've seen, wearing bright red, coarse clothing, with dark skin from all the sunlight, sitting on a rock in a manner that gave the impression that she'd been rooted there for ages, somehow channeling a never-ending song from the Earth itself into the Sky.

She was a cousin of Chucho and Vicente, who were cousins themselves, but they exchanged no words, in the manner of people used to being isolated, who think it's enough to look and understand, and to be seen and let your own appearance convey. I said "Buenas días" but she just looked at me, maybe the first gringo she'd ever seen, maybe not knowing what to say to someone like me, or maybe living in a space where greetings mean nothing.

But, we'd heard her singing, so we knew her, and she'd seen us coming a long way off, the boys sailing and me groping. Anything else said at that point would have been superfluous.

*****

THE MINER
The trail went right through a little rancho, which consisted of one house and several out-buildings and goat pens, surrounded by lots of maguey and Nopal cactus. The rancho was about three hours of hard hiking one-way to the nearest settlement, and if you wanted to buy something beyond the merest necessities, another hour in the back of a truck to the small town of Pinal de Amoles. One guesses that these people ate a lot of cactus fruits and pads, drank pulque from maguey, and ate goat meat. I saw just one man, a boy, and I heard women inside the building patting tortillas into shape.

The rancher was an uncle to Chucho and Vicente, and I thought I'd left the boys there for good. However, once I was on the trail again about 15 minutes, here the boys came running up behind me, obviously convinced that I'd die immediately without their guidance, though I don't think they'd ever been this far themselves.

They accompanied me another hour or so, until we reached a hut with a small garden and some goats. A man and woman probably in their 40s lived there, at first very wary, but then very friendly. Here I finally left Chucho and Vicente for good, but 15 minutes after heading off toward Bucareli alone, up behind me came the miner, also apparently convinced that left alone I'd die. No amount of talking could convince him that an experienced hiker can survive even in a land he doesn't know.

"We're in pure desert here," he said, sweeping his arms to take in the towering gray slopes all around us. "We're all alone here and if something happens you're just on your on. At night, what loneliness, just you, the stars and the owls. And who would think that someday a Gringo like you would come walking right through here?

The man said he was a miner: "Mercury, but also Silver and Gold. These hills are full of it. You should see the rocks in my house... !"

But then you could see in his face the thought that maybe he shouldn't be sharing such details with a randomly encountered outsider.

"But of course I have no means to work it. I just see it and it stays there, untouched.... "

He explained beautifully the rest of my trip, every right and left, and went with me in an arroyo bed until he could point out the very trail up the next ridge I was to take. For a man with such hardness in his face he emitted an uncommon measure of warmth and gentlenes, seeming to be surrounded by a sweet, peach- color aura as he explained to me in a soft voice every step of the way from there to Bucarelli -- a round pool of green water, with a horizontal pipe across it, here you take the trail to the right up the slope, cross the ridge, then down that slope into another arroyo, follow it about 90 minutes, then it meets the river with ankle-deep water... "

At the small pool of water with a pipe across it I found the trail, which was little more than a wildlife trail heading upslope, and I followed it across the razorback ridge, then down the other side, and on a peninsula of land extending into the valley I erected my tent. Very clearly from my tent doorI could see Bucareli, now much closer. You can see it, too, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070407v2.jpg.

My camp area was surrounded by flowering Tree Cactus, or Cane Cholla, CYLINDROPUNTIA IMBRICATA, and you can see a gorgous, rose-colored, 2.5-inch wide blossom at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070407of.jpg.

In that picture the 5-lobed item in the flower's center is the stigma. Surrounding it are many pollen-producing stamens. Several times during my stay a female Broad-billed Hummingbird came visiting.

Atop this narrow peninsula of land jutting into the valley the two other conspicuous bird species were the many White-winged Doves who cooed prettily at dusk, and the Violet-green Swallows who one at a time swooped above my tent so close that the sound of their wings cutting the air was impressive.

*****

REACHING BUCARELI
The next morning I descended the slope into the meandering arroyo (a gravelly stream devoid of water except immediately after heavy rains upslope, when it may rage for brief periods) that carried me almost all the rest of the way to Bucareli. It was the most pleasant arroyo-walking I've ever done, with interesting plants and usually at least one long-eared burro silhouetted on the bluffs above, watching me and often braying.

An Agave with 12ft-long flowering spikes was especially spectacular. I'm guessing that it was AGAVE CELSII. Images on the Web show blades that are wider and less spiny than what I saw, but that may be because the Internet's plants are well-watered garden specimens, not rock-cliff-hangers-on like the ones I saw. You can see my spiny-bladed agave at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070407ca.jpg.

The slopes around me could have occupied a geology class for a whole semester, just interpreting all the folding, faulting and mysterious goings-on.

Atop one ridge a dark layer outcropped, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070407si.jpg.

I think that that may be a sill which, in geology, is "An approximately horizontal sheet of igneous rock intruded between older rock beds." The slopes all around us were limestone, but of course the miner's mercury, silver and gold are minerals found in association with igneous rocks. In this area, millions of years ago, as a consequence of a tectonic plate just off Mexico's western coast plunging beneath the North American Plate, magma broke upwards through sedimentary rocks, sometimes spreading horizontally between more or less horizontal sedimentary layers, cooling and solidifying into sills of igneous rock. I'll bet the miner gets his mercury in or next to such sills. The ore from which mercury is derived is called cinnabar, which is Mercury Sulfide (HgS), and is bright red. I saw what I thought to be cinnabar, not in solid chunks, but looking like red paint poured over certain rocks of indeterminate origin.

The meandering arroyo ended in a verdant little valley green with orchards of mango and fields of sugarcane and newly planted corn. I heard water roaring and at first was sure the river would prove to be such a torrent that I could never cross and have to return all the way to Cuatro Palos. However, the loudness was an illusion of the high cliffs: The river was only about five feet across and, as the miner had promised, only about ankle deep.

I crossed it, slowly made my way up the zigzagging trail, and finally there it was to the right, the ex- convent of Bucareli. You can see exactly what I saw at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070407b6.jpg.

The town of Bucareli was small and compact. You can see my first view of it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070407b7.jpg.

Despite its smallness the town's park is pretty, with a fountain spurting water, and you can sit beneath fig trees full of Great-tailed Grackles and drink pure water and eat perfect avocados from a store, a kind of dream after so much desert and isolation. A picture showing one street and an edge of the pretty park is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070407b8.jpg.

On my way out of Bucareli I looked up the valley through which I had hiked and with binoculars could barely see, at the top of a ridge in the center of the field, the buildings of Cuatro Palos. That scene is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070407v3.jpg.

Then for a whole day I hiked up, up and more up, to the highway where I could catch a bus back to Jalpan. It was a day of walking a zigzagging gravel road averaging maybe 1.5 lanes wide. The geological views were splendid. Except for about half a mile in one green valley where fields were being planted, some of them in nopal cactus, it was all UP, and by the end of the day I'd sweated myself into a state of serious dehydration.

You can see one of the planted fields of nopal cactus I passed by, with those up front recently having been sheared of their edible pads, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070407ct.jpg.

That night I camped beneath high-elevation Mexican Weeping Pines who sighed exquisitely as I dropped into a profound sleep.

*****

HARVESTMEN ON MY WALL
The four days before I left for Cuatro Palos were more like days of the rainy season than what it is, the latter part of the dry season. The days were hot, then in the afternoons you heard thundering up in the mountains, and by day's end a storm rolled in.

Maybe that's why Harvestmen, or Daddy Longlegs, gathered en masse high on my little casita's stucco walls, beneath the eaves where rain couldn't reach them.

When I decided to take their picture I set a ladder against the wall, climbed up, and the moment before I snapped the camera I exhaled and my breath caused them to scatter. You can see the scattering critters at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070407hm.jpg.

Most of the time they're in a much compacter clump, their legs intertwined in a way that helps them stay on the wall despite some pretty good gusts of wind coming along. They're still there as I type this nearly a week after taking that picture.

Of course harvestmen are harmless, despite the "urban rumors" going around about their possessing the most deadly venom on Earth. You may enjoy reviewing my Harvestman Page where I explain why harvestmen aren't spiders and give a bit of harvestman ecology at http://www.backyardnature.net/longlegs.htm.

*****

WHAT IS A BURRO?
I saw so many burros during my hike to Bucareli that that question frequently came to mind. Specifically, what's the difference between a burro, a horse, a donkey, an ass and a mule? Earlier this week I'd seen a burro and her colt lounging beside the reservoir and I'd taken their picture. You can see that at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070407bu.jpg.

Unlike in the dog world, where all dog races belong to the same species (as proved by the fact that they can interbreed), horses and burros, though members of the same genus, are regarded as being completely different species.

Horse: EQUUS CABALLUS
Burro: EQUUS ASINUS

"Asinus" in the burro's scientific name, suggesting a certain assiness to the burro, hints at a further truth. That is, burros, asses and even donkeys are pretty much the same thing. They are all Equus asinus.

"Burro" is just the Spanish word for "donkey." I say "pretty much the same thing" because some people make a distinction between the descendents of donkeys introduced into the Americas by the Spanish in the 1500s, which they call burros, and donkeys introduced directly from Europe, which they call donkeys. Even people making a distinction between burros and donkeys appear to agree that both, being of the species "asinus," are asses. Jackasses are just "jack asses," or "male asses."

This brings us to mules. A male donkey or burro, called a jack, is crossed with a female horse to produce a mule. A male horse can be crossed with a female donkey (called a jennet or a jenny) to produce something that in North America is called a hinny, but in the United Kingdom is called a mare, or jenny, with the word jennet more commonly applied to the offspring of a female donkey and a male horse, regardless of whether the foal is female or male.

The diploid chromosome number of the horse is 64, while that of the burro is 62. This mismatch between chromosomes causes nearly all mules to be sterile.

Well, all this is gone into in much more detail at the American Donkey and Mule Society website at http://www.lovelongears.com/.

One last thing to say is that burros/donkeys/asses are originally African species evolved to thrive on arid, scrubby land, which is pretty much what they have here.

*****

DESERT LAVENDER STEPPING FORWARD
Our dry-season landscape changes week to week and it's fascinating to see how things come and go. There's always at least one species seeming to "step forward" from the landscape, drawing attention to itself as other species recede. Maybe for the whole year it'll quietly and retiringly blend with the rest of its community but then one day you're walking along and suddenly you'll notice it doing something so special that your first thought is, "Where did THIS come from?"

One species stepping forward now is "Desert Lavender." Ever since I got here this plant has been just one nondescript bush among many but right now it's very eye-catching." You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070407h7.jpg.

In that picture there's no doubt about which plant I'm referring to because the bush's intense silveriness imparts a sense of the plant being afire, of being like surging froth on a breaking ocean-wave. The silveriness is caused by its leaves and flowers being abundantly invested with short, soft, white, matting hairs -- "canescent," a botanist would say. You can see a close-up of Desert Lavender's pale-purple corollas arising from very hairy, canescent calyxes at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070407h8.jpg.

If you know your wildflowers, a glance at the above picture will convince you that Desert Lavender is a member of the Mint Family. However, you might remember that Garden Lavender's flowers are arranged in an almost continuous spike -- which you can see at http://www.mooseyscountrygarden.com/foliage-plants/lavender.html. However, Desert Lavender's flowers are clumped in whorls, or verticils, widely separated from one another along the hairy stem. Therefore, our plant isn't a "real lavender."

The local folks' Spanish name for Desert Lavender is "Salvia." Well, that's fitting, since the plant looks like a member of the genus Salvia, which is the genus for Garden Sage, which also is in the Mint Family and has hoary leaves like Desert Lavender's. Also, Desert Lavender's crushed leaves emit a very pungent, eucalyptus-like odor that could be considered sage- like. However, flowers of the genus Salvia bear only two fertile stamens while Desert Lavender's tiny blossoms clearly have four. Our "Salvia" isn't a "real salvia."

So, what in the heck is "Desert Lavender?"

It's HYPTIS ALBIDA, a Mint-Family member of a genus not occurring in North America except along the Deep South's Coastal Plain, and the US's Desert Southwest. Hyptis has over 300 species is mostly tropical America, is mostly found in arid, sunny regions, and its species are mostly unarmed herbs, subshrubs and shrubs bearing essential oils.

It's those oils that make the crushed leaves smell like eucalyptus or menthol, and which assure that backcountry Mexicans regard the plants as medicinal. People here make a tea of the leaves for sore throats. The scientific literature often mentions the plant in connection with arthritis studies.

*****

DROOPING LOBELIAS FLOWERING
Upslope where it's cooler, moister, and consequently the vegetation is lusher, along shaded roadsides and in rocky woods a certain wildflower also is "stepping forth" in a spectacular manner. With 1-¼-inch long, brightly red blossoms with yellow centers nodding on slender, 2-inch long pedicels, it's the Drooping Lobelia, LOBELIA LAXIFLORA, to be seen at http://museum.utep.edu/chih/gardens/plants/GtoM/lobellax.htm.

When I first saw this species its general appearance was so unlike any wildflower I knew that I couldn't guess what it was. However, when beneath the handlens I saw that the stamens' anthers were united into a tube around the female style, and that some anther tips bore long, slender, stiff hairs, I figured it almost had to be a lobelia.

The size, shape, color and position of the flowers on those long pedicels all cue us to the fact that hummingbirds and butterflies love this plant, which is distributed from Arizona through Middle America to Columbia. The roots are poisonous but traditionally they've been used to treat gastro-intestinal disorders, eye infections, fevers and inflammations.

"Drooping Lobelia" is an unfortunately plain name for such a spectacular wildflower. Indigenous Mexicans have known the species for a long time and they have honored it with more impressive names: Chilpanxochitl; Pipiloxáchitl; Toxcuitlapulxóchitl...

*****

LIVING WITHOUT A REFRIGERATOR
The other day as I prepared my mid-day meal for cooking in the solar oven I spotted a bit of mold on half a head of cabbage that had been lying on my food shelf. It was a simple and quick matter to pare off the moldy spot. Fresh, wholesome cabbage lay just below. And I thought: Up North most people would throw away this good cabbage, and a goodly percentage would freak out seeing me going ahead and eating this.

In fact, it's all I can do to keep from freaking out when I see the waste of food and other resources typical in North American households. I've seen people throw away a dozen eggs because they were accidentally left out of the refrigerator for a couple of hours. Here I regularly eat eggs I've kept in my uncooled room for a week or more, and I buy them from little stores with no refrigeration at all. All my produce comes from open-air stalls and I assure you that on the average my fruit and vegetables are fresh, nutritious and tasty. During all my years as a hermit in Mississippi I never had a refrigerator and I didn't miss one at all.

Besides not having to work to make money to pay for a refrigerator and the electricity to keep it going, I also have the satisfaction of knowing that I have no refrigerator using electricity. Remember that most electricity in North America is made by burning coal (mostly stripmined), as shown by the graph at http://www.eurotrib.com/files/3/051001_Uppsala_all_fossil_fuel_reserves.jpg.

Mining this coal causes massive land destruction, and burning it contributes to global warming. Using any form of grid-supplied electricity encourages the building of more nuclear power plants.

You can see what a big slice of the energy-pie a refrigerator is responsible for, in an average US family NOT using an air conditioner, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070407pc.gif.

My experience is that when you have a refrigerator you develop addictions to foods and drinks that are richer, more caloric and more sense-deadening than need be. You don't know your senses are dead until you have been free of your addictions for some time and find that foods and drinks you thought were bland and characterless begin pleasing in subtle ways. You don't know how wonderful a cool drink is until you've been away from ice awhile.

It's beautiful to see wholesome grains, fruits and vegetables on shelves in my daily living space, not sealed inside a vibrating metal box. It's a healthy meditation to walk back and forth between home and the local market every couple of days carrying the food that will keep me alive and healthy. It's liberating to not have to pay for the electricity and maintenance having a refrigerator demands.

And it contributes to my spiritual well-being to know that I no longer require a kitchen with a refrigerator humming away every hour of the day sending out this message to power producers: "More, more, more, send me more electricity, no matter what the cost or consequences... "

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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